Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck) is a small-time thief in 1920s prohibition era Boston. After finding himself on the wrong side of Irish Mobster Albert White (Robert Gleneister) and a stint in prison he ends up working for the Italian Mob in Florida where he is pulled between his desire for revenge, his conscience and his own ambitions.
Affleck is the star, director and writer of ‘live by night’, roles which we have seen him masterfully juggle in 2012’s ‘Argo’. This is Affleck’s second adaptation of a novel by Author Dennis Lehane with the first being Affleck’s 2007 directorial debut ‘Gone, Baby Gone’. Unfortunately, ‘Live by Night’ never quite reaches the heights of Affleck’s previous adaptation.
Affleck is the core of the film shifting through smaller sets of characters throughout the film. Including Brendan Gleeson as Coughlin’s police father, Zoe Saldana as Coughlin’s Cuban wife, Sienna Miller as his girlfriend and Chris Cooper as the Sheriff of the small Florida town Coughlin sets up in. While all the performances are passable they are all largely let down by dialogue which aims to be morally philosophical about the law, religion and prohibition but comes across as clunky, heavy-handed and confused about it wants to say. Although Chris Cooper should be commended for taking a relatively small role and making the most of the small role and the dialogue he was given to work with.
The script relies too heavily on unnecessary narration and is hindered by dialogue and a story which isn’t confident in what it wants to be. The film tries to juggle stories of revenge, a gangster’s rise, a good man in a bad world, the Klu Klux Klan and religious fanatics and ultimately fails to tell any of these stories convincingly. This alternating storytelling may work in Lehane’s 400-page novel but doesn’t work in the format of Affleck’s 129-minute film. Had one or two of these sub plots been cut, the film could be much more focused and clear both in what its message is and what story it wants to tell. Ultimately the densely-packed plot and at times unintentionally funny dialogue hinder a talented cast from delivering a tight gangster story about reluctant revenge.
The film oozes a beautiful film noir gangster style, especially in its cinematography. Although unfortunately this is relatively inconsistent. The film is bookended by two fantastically shot scenes, a frenetic car chase in Model Ts and a stylish Scarface style last stand shootout in an expansive hotel. Beyond these though there are no truly stand-out scenes.
‘Live by Night’ is a very disappointing film, it doesn’t live up to ‘Argo’ or ‘Gone baby Gone’ and on top of this the blueprint for an excellent film is here but it simply tries to do too much all at once. This failure to juggle these threads is reflective on Affleck’s failure to juggle his multiple roles and the sporadic quality of the script and cinematography which have hamstrung a talented cast and potentially great story. The film is missing focus and a better film is buried in there but ultimately, I would only recommend the film to a truly die hard gangster film fan and even at that they may not be entirely impressed.