#REVIEW: “LIVE BY NIGHT”
Review by David Baldwin for Mr. Will Wong
In recent years, Ben Affleck truly has solidified his standing in the world of Cinema. He directed the fantastic Gone Baby Gone, and he managed to change practically everyone else’s opinion of him overnight as an artist. An Oscar and a Dark Knight appearance or two later, and we have his latest multi-hyphenated work, Live By Night.
World War I is over and prohibition is in effect. Joe Coughlin (Affleck) is a noble thief, doing his best not to fall in with the gangsters who plague the Boston crime scene. But he cannot hold out forever.
My description is deliberately vague because there is no true way to properly encapsulate the characters and situations Joe encounters over the course of Live By Night. Affleck really challenges himself here, working within the grand scope of prohibition and gangsterism during the Roaring Twenties and Dirty Thirties. While the Film is not as viciously-violent as I had assumed, his attention to period detail is immaculate. Each setting is more expressively different than the next. A first act car chase and multiple gun fights are vivid, thrilling and help showcase Affleck’s brilliant eye for action. He may be emulating those who have come before him, but he leaves his mark on the gangster genre with visual style to spare.
Despite those great visuals, Affleck’s reverence for Dennis Lehane’s original Novel leads to a chaotic mess of an adapted story. From the very beginning, it seems like he is trying to stuff the Film full of as much story, characters and ideas he can possibly coax out of the novel – not to mention wordy narration that works against the Film instead of enhancing it. He just seems too unsure of himself, despite this being his fourth feature as a Director (but only his first as the only credited Screenwriter). Affleck overcompensates in some scenes, and then lets others play out with reckless abandon. Whatever moments of cinematic glory he achieves, he squanders by meandering through the next half dozen. Even the comedic timing seems to be off, frequently popping up intentionally and entirely unintentionally at the most inopportune times. While he ensured the Film looked exquisite, I think Affleck could have used more time on the Screenplay – or a helping hand from another Writer.
The character development is stifled under the messy story, but the stacked cast still deliver as best as they can. Chris Cooper, Elle Fanning and Brendan Gleeson are solid but overshadowed, and Zoe Saldana is effective despite the camera’s oversexualized focus on her. Affleck himself does well as Joe, really digging into the nuances of his character. I really liked The Mindy Project’s Chris Messina, who plays Joe’s Right-Hand Man Dion Bartolo. He gets to have the most fun here, acting as both enforcer and comic relief. But the Film’s secret weapon is Sienna Miller’s near unrecognizable Irish moll Emma Gould. She only has a small amount of screen time, but she threatens to steal the whole Film out from everyone the entire time.
Live By Night is a noble effort on Affleck’s part. It looks spectacular and has some solid acting, but the story is sloppy. It puts an unnecessary weight on the Film it can never recover from, even when Affleck is delivering awesome visuals. Live By Night is nowhere near as bad as you may have heard, but it is hard to not be disappointed by the final product.
Warner Bros. Pictures Canada release LIVE BY NIGHT on Friday, January 13, 2017.