Director: Ben Affleck
Starring: Ben Affleck, Elle Fanning, Brendan Gleeson, Chris Messina, Sienna Miller, Zoe Saldana, Chris Cooper
Run Time: 128 mins
‘Live By Night’ is the latest directorial effort by actor-director Ben Affleck, who has proved quite the talent behind-the-screen as well with hits such as ‘Gone Baby Gone’, ‘The Town’ and ‘Argo’, the latter of which earned three Academy Awards including one for Best Picture. Since ‘Argo’, Affleck’s career has waned with the exception of his turn in David Fincher’s ‘Gone Girl’ in 2014. ‘Runner Runner’ recieved poor reviews, ‘The Accountant’ was mixed at best and what should have been the icing in the cake unfortunately backfired in ‘Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice’ where he played Batman. Maybe his year this year hasn’t been the best but there has always been this to look forward to. ‘Live By Night’ is an adaptation from the novel of the same name penned by Dennis Lehane of which Affleck’s directorial debut ‘Gone Baby Gone’ was also based on material by the same author. It details the rise and fall of Prohibition-era gangster, Joe Coughlin, the son of a Police Captain, who as revenge for the apparent death of his girlfriend from the notorious gangster Albert White joins the rival Italian Mafia group led by a sinister figure called Pescatore. Pescatore sends him down to Ybor City in Florida from Boston to run his empire which has come under attack from White. This premise sounds as if it’s a classic gangster flick and one that should be directed with real flare by this director. Unfortunately, the film has recieved poor reviews which has led to a massive financial loss for Warner Bros who entrusted him on this project and this has culminated recently in Ben Affleck stepping down as the director for the upcoming solo DC outing, ‘The Batman’. Despite this, I was still looking forward to seeing this film due to the impressive cast that has been assembled which comprises of Affleck, Elle Fanning, Brendan Gleeson, Zoe Saldana and Chris Cooper to name a few prominent actors and I struggle to see how Affleck can make a bad film out of this material.
‘Live By Night’ is an entertaining film that features some good performances and an engaging narrative but it is ultimately rather hollow as it races through a lot of material in what is already quite a lengthy 128 minute runtime. It’s quite rare for a film to be too short but this is and I think an extra half-an-hour or so could have fleshed these characters out more and establish a more concise narrative. It is competently directed by Affleck and is well shot by Robert Richardson who chews the scenery here and I was never bored by it. It doesn’t deserve the damning reviews it has recieved so far but it’s not quite excellent either.
The film features some strong performances even though it is mainly only Affleck’s character that is developed. Affleck plays this part with ease and despite him being behind the camera in several different roles plays Couglin very coolly and empathetically. The other standouts are Chris Messina who plays his partner, Dion, who joins him from Boston down in Ybor and Chris Cooper, a Sheriff that Couglin befriends. Although not listed in the main cast list, Matthew Maher has a small role as a member of the Klu Klux Klan who causes multiple problems for Affleck’s gangster and Brendan Gleeson also has a small role in the beginning of the film as Coughlin’s father who is always extremely versatile. The female characters played by Zoe Saldana and Sienna Miller in the film are painfully average except for Elle Fanning who plays a small but pivotal role in this narrative which is one of the best performances by this young actress so far. You will have noticed this repetition of the word ‘small’ as this is very much Affleck’s characters film and no-one else is given a lot to do.
The story on which this based on by Dennis Lehane’s novel is generally very interesting and I was never bored by one second of the film. However as mentioned, there really isn’t a lot for most of the characters to do simply because Affleck races through this material and the film doesn’t get a lot of opportunities to pause for a minute and just breathe. The opening in Boston is efficient and quite economically handled but it is when Affleck’s character reaches Ybor City that problems start to arise. No sooner since he has arrived, the film suddenly winds up at how his power is short-lived and most of the new characters that are introduced are done so in short, serviceable yet contrived sequences that never really earn our empathy towards them. If Affleck would have chosen to have concentrated the film on a certain time period or had extended the film, I think it would’ve been a better result that wouldn’t have been critically mauled. I don’t think this is the fault of Affleck’s direction though. Affleck directs this film with flair and confidence and it is generally a violent and entertaining flick.
Harry Gregson-Williams’ score is just ok – he is capable of so much more than this and the score isn’t particularly memorable but at the very least, it is serviceable. The cinematography by Robert Richardson however is great and you can tell he’s had fun making this. There are some stunning action sequences that he shoots really assuredly particularly a car chase early on in the film that is especially thrilling and he manages to elevate the entirety of the film.
‘Live By Night’ may not be the Academy Award contender one had hoped for but it certainly isn’t a travesty either. It’s always entertaining, I was never bored by it in the slightest and parts of it are gripping. There are some strong performances and great cinematography too. But the film never amounts to much more than that and especially coming off three hits in his directorial career, the fact that this film isn’t perhaps as good is why the reaction to this film has been how it is. It is quite disheartening to see how much money this film has lost in its box office and some have speculated that the failure of this film scared Affleck into leaving the director’s chair on ‘The Batman’. Whatever reason behind that when you simply judge ‘Live By Night’ as a film, it is perfectly adequate and a pleasing way to spend just over two hours.