Ben Affleck has a solid track record as a director, whilst maintaining a steady level of entertainment his films have managed to be increasingly serious, pulpy fiction that is based in a heavy-set reality. Live by Night is the latest production from the Boston based star. He comes fresh from his DC regimented fitness regimen into ill-fitting suits and prohibition era Florida.
Affleck’s lead, Joe Coughlin, is a principled man, we are introduced to this by the first scene of the film, voice over narration over still of the first world war. After serving Joe grew disdainful of hierarchies and refuses to take orders from another man again; “I left a soldier, I came back an outlaw.” Therein lies the central conflict of the movie and Joe Coughlin’s character. He enters a life of crime to avoid taking orders until he finds himself coerced into organised crime and so into a structure of taking orders once more. The dramatic weight of the movie rests in the conflict built into Joe. The issue is whether he can maintain his steadfast principles whilst finding success in a business that is built by people who hold none.
The dialogue of the characters is poetic and deliberate, it’s all very cinematic and unreal. Joe’s narration provides exposition for each scene as we hop from conversation to conversation. If I was being harsh I would say that the film breaks the rules of ‘show, don’t tell’ all too often. It is clear when watching that the film was based off a book and in this case, it is not necessarily a compliment.
Live by Night wanders on the fringes of being just like films you’ve seen a hundred times before. It possesses the same story beats as films like Goodfellas and Donnie Brasco but tries to hold on to the central premise that this is a film about one man’s desire to remain a ‘good man.’ At some points this comes off but for too much of the film it loses site of what it is and instead becomes a basic gangster film that offers nothing new.
The gangster style conflicts at the centre of the film are all too easy to deal with. Each victory comes from hiding behind a wall and then shooting your enemy and the repercussions of the violence are uniformly skipped past via montages that try to coast by on the merits of their cinematography and nothing more. The film takes the easy route too often with the meat of its story, Joe battles against Italian and Irish mobsters, evangelical Christians and the KKK. It’s hard to come up with a collective of people easier to demonise outside of the Nazis, this means the film dedicates very little time to developing its threats. Meaning that the main villains of the film never seem to truly threaten Joe. This leads to the film’s most frustrating sequence, where a confrontation with the KKK that has been building up for most of the film is completely resolved in a two-minute montage.
All secondary characters in the movie appear to be hugely undeveloped, so much so that they appear to be irrelevant to how the story progresses. Characters are inorganically brought into the story to serve their purpose and then leave when the story is finished with them. The majority of characters are low effort stereotypes with little likeable qualities or charisma, there is a chance that this was an intentional in order to demonise criminals and thugs who intend to die as criminals and thugs, but it is almost too easy of a way to shift empathy onto Joe as the only humanised character in the film.
There seems to have been a concerted effort to make Sienna Miller’s Emma appear as some sort of moral litmus paper for Affleck’s character. However, his circumstances, his wife, his career and behaviour perform this same purpose and so she is an extremity that the film could do without. All in all too many things in the film serve the same purpose. The film does not mix up the action and drama in enough significant ways to keep it interesting and takes too long to get going. The film tries to reflect Joe’s ambivalence toward crime and wholesomeness, but in doing so it results in a beige character drama with a light crime overlay.
Live by Night appears to be disinterested in 90% of its content, it is a gangster film that doesn’t want to talk about gangster life. If you have managed to see any of the films near non-existent marketing then you may feel hard done by the film not doing what it says on the tin, but for all the film’s negatives it is still an interesting character drama about a man conflicted.
It deserves commendations for appearing as if it were a regular gangster film when in fact it is telling a different, more humanist story. It is a film for contemplation rather than cheap thrills, and when viewed as such it is a rewarding experience with some great dialogue and interesting reflections. It just wastes too much of its screen time.