Director: Ben Affleck
At times energetic and interesting, but mostly messy and overreaching, Ben Affleck‘s Live by Night starts out as a refreshing departure for the newly-minted Caped Crusader, before becoming something else, and then too many different things at once.
Written by, directed by, and starring Affleck, the Prohibition era drama concerns low-level criminal Joe Coughlin (Affleck) and his band of nitwits (including scene-stealer Chris Messina) taking down scores in late 1920s Boston. Unfortunately, Joe is in love with the wrong dame: Emma Gould (Sienna Miller, mostly wasted), lover of Irish kingpin Albert White (Robert Glenister). Once blackmailed by the rival Italian mobster Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone), Joe finds himself between a rock and a hard place.
From the opening voiceover, we are informed by Joe himself that he is a WWI veteran disillusioned by the state of things, forgotten by the country he fought for, and pushed into a life of crime. Unfortunately, Affleck’s lead performance never fully conveys the conflict. No current movie star looks more the part of a matinee idol, and the man wears a fedora rather well. But the struggle that’s meant to exist in this good man-turned-bad doesn’t quite resonate. In fact, the film is at its best when Joe is at his worst.
After a few bodies pile up in Beantown, our kinda-sorta anti-hero begins running rum in Ybor City, a neighborhood in Depression-era Tampa made up mostly of Latino immigrants. Political entanglements follow, from a puritanical police chief (Chris Cooper) and his preacher daughter (Elle Fanning) to the Ku Klux Klan, who don’t take kindly to Joe’s treating non-white people like they’re human. In one scene, he discusses with local bootlegger and soon-to-be romantic interest Graciella Corrales (Zoe Saldana) the merits of a moral life, ensuring the tragedy that will surely ensue.
It’s clear that Affleck, adapting from author Dennis Lehane‘s award-winning novel of the same name, is determined to explore the minutiae of the gangster picture while also playing the hits. After he kills a particular adversary, he tells right-hand man Dion (Messina) he had a whole speech he’d planned to recite to the man before he died, but didn’t get the chance. Cooper’s chief has a frank discussion with Joe about how corruption is handled in Tampa, not as something to be eradicated but rather something to be monitored and controlled. After all, everybody’s making money. These smaller elements are interesting, even fascinating at times.
All that’s here has been touched on in films past, but rarely all at once. We get one-liners about making your own rules and we get full scenes about the existence of God. There are violent gunfights and in-depth discussions about how to get a casino approved by the city and state. There are happy endings and sad endings.
There’s a whole lot going on throughout Live by Night. Somewhere in there is a crime film worthy of its intention.
Live by Night is now in limited release and expands wide on January 13.
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