DIR: Ben Affleck • WRI: Patrick Ness • PRO: Belén Atienza • DOP: Oscar Faura • ED: Jaume Martí, Bernat Vilaplana • DES: Eugenio Caballero • MUS: Fernando Velázquez • CAST: Sigourney Weaver, Felicity Jones, Lewis MacDougal
Live By Night, based on a novel of the same name by Dennis Lehane, is Ben Affleck’s latest directorial effort since 2012’s Argo. Initially based in 1920s Boston, Affleck plays Irish-American Joe Coughlin (pronounced “coff-lin”), a former soldier-turned thief who describes himself as an ‘outlaw’ in a city divided by two rival mobs. With the aid of inside information, Coughlin and his team earn a living by breaking into bars and poker matches and steal available cash, without displeasing the mobs. Yet, he risks danger with the Irish mob, run by Albert White, by embarking on a secret relationship with Albert’s girlfriend Emma (played by Sienna Miller). Albert becomes aware of their secret and uses Emma to trap Coughlin, whose death is prevented by the arrival of police seeking Coughlin’s arrest for the death of three policeman after his last bank robbery.
Coughlin spends three years in prison and, upon his release, forges a relationship with the Irish mob’s Italian rivals, led by Maso Pescatore, to seek revenge against Albert White. Moving to Tampa in Florida, Coughlin is now in charge of Pescatore’s rum-running business, and diminishes Albert White’s similar business in the process. Coughlin strikes upon a new deal on behalf of Pescatore with the local Cuban gang, and also falls in love with one of their bosses, Zoe Saldana’s Graciella. Tampa becomes a new success for the Pescatore gang, and Coughlin, but that success is then interrupted by the police chief’s preacher daughter, Albert White’s gang, and pressures from Maso Pescatore. Live By Night then sees Coughlin negotiating to resolve the multiple problems facing him, whilst attempting to stay alive in the process.
Firstly, Live By Night looks visually stunning with its cinematography by Robert Richardson, especially when the film moves to Tampa, and Richardson beautifully captures the landscape. The score, especially in the first act and during the action sequences, evokes memories of Hans Zimmer’s score for The Dark Knight, but Harry Gregson-Williams has contributed music that impressively compliments each sequence within the film. The majority of the cast deliver solid performances, especially Elle Fanning, who seamlessly transforms from innocent Hollywood actress-wannabe to evangelical preacher. Yet, her time on-screen is insufficient, as was the case for other characters such as Coughlin’s father, who was played by Brendan Gleeson.
These insufficiencies are a result of Live By Night including too many characters without much development. Both Maso Pescatore and Albert White fail to be feared because their characters are thinly-spread out across the film. Changing location from Boston to Tampa becomes problematic as there are too many sub-plots breathing for air throughout the exhausting running time, and some are bizarrely resolved, especially one involving Emma. The screenplay is also written by Affleck and the source material may have been difficult to adapt, but there is simply too much going on and it’s evident. There are also dubious accents to be heard, especially Sienna Miller’s ‘Irish’ accent, and even Coughlin’s Bostonian accent makes cameo appearances when it wants to.
The overall plot is too disjointed and too long, which was a problem for other Prohibition-era films such as 2012’s Lawless. However, there are interesting sub-plots if you isolate them, such as Elle Fanning’s Loretta Figgis and her father Irving, played by Chris Cooper, dealing with their religious beliefs. The Boston and Tampa locations don’t gel, and again, if they were standalone pieces, their effect may have been greater. Live By Night may work had it been adapted for a television series and used its plot for greater dramatic effect with multiple episodes, such as the excellent Peaky Blinders, which shares similarities with the film’s plot.
This film will not become a highlight of Ben Affleck’s directorial or acting career – with its plot and absence of significant character development, Live By Night is a disjointed mess.
15A (See IFCO for details)
Live By Night is released 13th January 2017