Disillusioned by his experience fighting in World War I, cop’s son Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck) becomes a small-time hood operating in Boston. But after falling foul of Irish gangster Albert White (Robert Glenister), he winds up working for the Mafia in Tampa, Florida, fuelled by vengeance and ambition.
Ben Affleck's fourth film as director is also his second to adapt Boston-noir master Dennis Lehane. In 2007, he ably demonstrated his behind-the-camera nous with taut, focused crime mystery Gone Baby Gone, which proved a sign of such great things to come that it wasn’t long before people were giving him the ultimate actor-turned-director accolade by calling him “the new Clint Eastwood”. With Live By Night, Affleck further pushes the Eastwood comparison in the role of soldier-turned-outlaw-turned-mobster Joe Coughlin, delivering every line in a raspy, Clint-esque half-whisper and opening his eyes barely wider than a squint. But, despite mining the same novelist’s work, the film itself is not nearly as taut, focused or gripping as Affleck’s impressive debut.
A two-hour movie that feels three hours long.
Live By Night opens unsurely and doesn’t quite know when to end, making it — like Affleck himself, now perma-beefed to Batman proportions — a whole lotta middle. Over-dependent on tell-rather-than show voiceover, it attempts a sickbed-reflection starting point, then flashes back to a Miller’s Crossing-style tale of love triangles and double crosses. Then it returns to that starting point and dumps what you’d expect to be two main characters, before jumping forward a few years and deciding it’s now a revenge movie, completely shifting location from an autumnal Boston to the salsa-soundtracked streets of Ybor, Tampa, in Florida. Except… it forgets it’s a revenge movie and settles into the familiar rhythm of a gangster rise-to-power narrative — with added flavour from the Ku Klux Klan and Christian fanatics. Such loose structuring can be fine in novel form, but Affleck has somehow turned Lehane’s book into a two-hour movie that feels three hours long.
Which is a shame, as it’s by no means lacking in memorable moments. Every frame brims with visual quality, thanks to Robert Richardson’s ever-steady eye; the DP captures the sharp, expressionist contrasts of classic film noir in vibrant colour. Early on, Affleck pulls off a bravura heist-getaway chase scene, which feels like The Bourne Supremacy in Model T Fords; he gleefully smashes them together, sends them tumbling along orange-leafed forest roads, sets them alight and artfully dunks one in a lake. And later on, he treats us to an almighty shoot-out in an ornate, Floridian hotel, taking as much note from the Coen brothers’ ‘Danny Boy’ scene in Miller’s Crossing as he does from Brian De Palma’s Scarface.
Sadly, though, the rest consists of narration which goes over things the audience already knows (or can figure out for themselves), while the ‘good man in a bad world’ theme doesn’t quite wash. If a thirst for revenge drove this former small-time crook to join up with the violent mobsters he once derided, then Affleck’s script never quite makes sense of Joe’s decision to stick with this life once his retributive passion has apparently subsided. Which sadly makes this a thoroughly disappointing follow-up to the crackingly scripted oscar high of Argo.
A handsome period drama with the occasional impressive flourish, but despite its rich subject matter, it's Affleck’s weakest film yet as a director.