Live by Night marks the fourth time Ben Affleck sits in the directors chair, coming off the success of Argo which won Best Picture at the 85th Academy Awards. This time adapting the 2012 novel of the same name from Dennis Lehane, who also wrote Gone Baby Gone which Affleck adapted into a film for his directorial debut. Live by Night takes place in the 1920’s and tells the story of Joe Coughlin, the son of a Boston police chief and his descent into the criminal underworld of Florida. Affleck produces, directs, writes and stars in this formulaic mobster movie.
Often telling instead of showing, Live by Night never develops a sense of urgency or stakes, instead putting an ensemble of pretty faces on display for 129 minutes. Where movies like Goodfellas and The Godfather succeed, Live by Night fails. Struggling to expand on its characters, they instead come off as one dimensional and carry the same typical tropes of other gangster movies. Affleck’s character Joe is bland and doesn’t bring anything unique to the table. The unlikable Joe makes it hard to keep viewers invested as it soon turns into long stretches of dialogue with no real purpose. Chris Messina plays Dion Bartolo, Coughlin’s second in command, unfortunately his hokey one liners belong in Gangster Squad. Chris Cooper and Brendan Gleeson do well with there limited characters as they try to add some credibility to the film.
Early on in the film Joe risks his life trying to run off with his secret lover Emma Gould, played by Sienna Miller, who also happens to be the mistress of the notorious gangster Albert White. Unfortunately nothing compelling comes from this situation as there isn’t any kind of payoff. Miller’s Irish accent is obnoxiously distracting as it fluctuates often in her brief time on screen. Zoe Saldana’s natural screen presence is enough to salvage the portrayal of her character, Coughlin’s second lover. The dialogue provided for her is cringe inducing as they seem to be lines made specifically for the marketing of the film. Regardless, Saldana is one of the few redeeming parts of the film, another being Elle Fanning’s Loretta. 2016 has been a breakout year for Fanning as she starred in the glamour horror film The Neon Demon, had a pivotal role in 20th Century Women, and is now working with one of the biggest stars. The scenes between Affleck and Fanning are some of the best in the film and really spotlight her talent. A Hollywood hopeful who turns to drugs and prostitution before coming back and becoming a devout Christian, Loretta’s beliefs put a wrench in Coughlin’s plans.
Taking a page out of The Town’s book, Live by Night features a couple of set pieces that will briefly woo the audience. From a bank heist resulting in an explosive car chase to the big finale which features a shootout in a hotel. Regardless of the quality of the particular film, Affleck has a distinct eye which makes him a favorite in the industry. His newest feature fails to launch and instead falls into the camp of mediocrity. Still, a by the numbers mob movie from Ben Affleck is still worthy of a watch when it makes its way to cable. Rarely showing any grit, the polished look of this Florida based gangster story doesn’t suit the subject material. Filled with shallow characters and an uninspired script, Live by Night too often is met with a lull while only a few moments of excitement make this film worthwhile.