Ben Affleck puts the cape to one side to complete his own directorial Boston trilogy with a ‘night’ of a different kind, in yet another Dennis Lehane adaptation, Live by Night. The writer that served Affleck so well on his directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone, has a proven track record when it comes to big screen translation, with Mystic River and The Drop both on his resume. So it comes as little surprise that this prohibition era drama is a classy affair; stylish in execution and riddled with generous performances from the impressive ensemble.
Affleck is Joe Coughlin, a reluctant gangster, with a preference for simple stick-ups rather than a life of answering to either of the warring gang bosses; the Italian Don, Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone), and the Irish mob leader, Albert White (Robert Glenister). Joe’s situation is made that much more precarious by the fact his father (Brendan Gleeson) is a decorated police chief, and he just happens to be in love with White’s mistress, the straight-talking gangsters moll, Emma Gould (Sienna Miller).
Unwilling to conform to the expectations of those around him, whether it be his father, or the assorted criminals that are convinced he doesn’t have the required evil in him to finish down the road he’s started on, Joe must take on the KKK, corrupt Sheriffs, religion, and his own moral dilemmas, just to stay alive.
Sumptuous would be the best way to describe Affleck’s framing of 1920’s America. Whether it’s the detailed recreation of the concrete labyrinth that is the Boston streets, or the more impressive scope of the sun soaked Tampa locales, whatever your feelings about Affleck’s fourth directorial effort, there’s no denying its accomplished visual filmmaking.
Generally light on action, Live by Night is bookended by two impressive sequences of old school filmmaking. One is a frantic getaway, the other a classic Tommy gun showdown. Both are coherent, refreshingly simple, and dramatically effective.
Performances are generally excellent, with Affleck garnering a reputation of being something of an actor’s director, affording others the more showy turns around his central performance. Argo was a prime example of this, and whilst he’s solid enough, the heart of the story comes from the peripheral characters.
Sienna Miller is terrific, fast establishing herself as the go-to character actress de jour. In a film that could be accused of taking the soft-focus approach to crime, she is brutally honest, and hard-edged in a way that some of the other characters could have benefitted from being. Elle Fanning’s pivotal role also makes a lasting impression; flitting between ethereal confidence and tragic fragility in a way that befits the biblical nature of her character. Only Zoe Saldana feels underserved in a narrative in which Affleck juggles multiple character arcs, sometimes neglecting to add depth to his own. She’s resigned to the genre trappings of ‘criminal’s wife’, afforded little more to do than fretting about his well-being.
Image: Warner Bros.
Sure there are more tropes than you can throw your trilby at, but when they’re packaged with this much class, into a piece of genuine grown-up storytelling, then they can be forgiven. It might be Affleck’s least accomplished effort, and he has set the bar quite high thus far, but Live by Night makes it four from four.