Live By Night is a “lavish gangster epic” of the sort in which Hollywood used to specialize.
A throwback in more ways than one, it’s also an old-fashioned star vehicle for its director Ben Affleck.
Based on a novel by Dennis Lehane (as was Affleck’s directorial debut), Live By Night sees the Boston native back on home turf — albeit a century out of time— as Joe Coughlin, a smooth stick-up artist who returns to America after the Great War.
The film, adapted by Affleck himself, portrays Joe’s reluctant transformation into a fully fledged gangster in the wake of a personal tragedy that sees his lover killed and him sent to prison.
Shifting the action to the glossy heat of Prohibition Era Florida, Affleck’s fitting voice-over — presumably lifted straight from Lehane’s prose — lends a bit of depth to a character otherwise defined by a thin-lipped smile and a certain way with the ladies. Sienna Miller (nearly unrecognisable with a crimped blonde do and Irish brogue), Zoe Saldana (slim, coiled grace), and Elle Fanning — along with her sister, Dakota, the go-to for fallen innocence — play a trio of women who guide Joe’s way: the moll to a psychotic mob boss, a Cuban rum-runner, and an aspiring actress whose plight might spell his salvation… or damnation.
Live By Night tries to get us to invest in Joe’s gradual moral degradation, but compared to his enemies — sneering clansmen, imbecilic goombahs — he’s practically a saint. Only his uneasy relationship with accommodating but incorruptible police chief Irving Figgis (an ever-effective Chris Cooper), evokes a twinge of discomfort.
Robert Richardson’s cinematography is as rich and elegant as Joe’s impeccable white suit, and Joe himself — attractive, understated, and utterly competent — makes for a serviceable, if slightly bland lead. In fact, he’s an ideal analogue for the film itself.
Affleck captures all the shootings, explosions, and dodgy dealings, rival mob bosses and with the requisite sweeping style. He makes the relatively slow pace of a period car thrilling by emphasizing the clunkiness of the era’s automobiles; their sheer lack of manoeuvrability is such that a gunman on foot poses a serious threat.
Live By Night sits comfortably, if undistinguishedly, between pulp and polish — call it an enamel gangster flick — though it mostly amounts to an interesting assemblage of tropes. Given the over-hype that surrounded Affleck’s last effort, Argo (AKA the least deserving Best Picture winner since Shakespeare in Love*), I’m prepared to give this one a pass.
Still, it’s no The Accountant.
*And yes, I’m counting Crash.