Written, directed, produced and acted in by Ben Affleck (Leonardo DiCaprio is also listed as a producer), Live By Night is a slick, aesthetically pleasing crime drama that follows Irish-American WW1 veteran Joe Coughlin as he becomes increasingly involved in criminal activity and gangster warfare.
Set in the 1920s and 30s, it features Affleck in the lead role supported by an all-star cast including Brendan Gleeson as his police captain father, Sienna Miller as his Irish lover and mistress of notorious Irish gang leader Albert White (Robert Glenister) and Zoe Saldana as the unquestionable symbol of morality, Graciella Corrales. Chris Messina is Coughlin’s partner, Dion, and Elle Fanning gives one of the film’s best performances as aspiring actress Loretta. The film’s opening shows Joe as a skilled criminal and bank robber who refuses to work for Italian mafia boss Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone) as he does not want to become involved in the war between the Irish and Italian gangsters. Preferring to commit low-risk robberies and avoid killing after fighting in the war, Coughlin is incarcerated after a job goes wrong and reluctantly asks Pescatore for a job when he is released three years later, becoming a bootlegger in charge of overseeing Pescatore’s illegal alcohol-selling operation. The rest of the film follows his dealings as an increasingly powerful bootlegger and show the mounting tensions between those who disapprove of alcohol, gambling or the company he keeps (Corrales and her group of friends), such as Christians.
The cast is undoubtedly one of the film’s best attributes. Sienna Miller is well-suited to the role of a flirtatious, feisty Irish mistress to Albert White (and Coughlin’s lover), Zoe Saldana is far more adept at emotional acting than Affleck and Brendan Gleeson is brilliant as torn police captain trying to do his job whilst dealing with his criminal son, though his role in the film is unfortunately fairly small. However, despite the promising characters and casting of skilful actors to play them, they are woefully underdeveloped which is a real shame and a waste of considerable talent. Almost no backstory or detail is divulged about Coughlin’s right hand man Dion Bartolo Messina other than the fact he has a wife (once mentioned), despite his almost constant presence throughout the film. Interesting characters and the opportunities for high quality acting are neglected in what is generally a one-man Ben Affleck show, largely serving to depict the effects of his life as a criminal and burgeoning gangster on himself and the town he is trying take control of.
Nevertheless, a few (relatively) minor characters stand out and are given adequate scenes for talented actors to showcase their ability and Elle Fanning is something of a saving grace as arguably the film’s most compelling character Loretta, Sheriff Irving’s (Chris Cooper) daughter and partial antagonist who acts wonderfully and easily outshines Affleck in their scenes together. Her story is as moving as it is unexpected and forms one of the film’s most gripping side-plots. Irving’s brother in law, RD Pruitt, is another character who stands out, played by Matthew Maher, a thorn in Coughlin’s side and a tortuously irritating caricature of a man who exists to insult everyone and wreak havoc. Loathsome and annoying he may be, but he is enjoyably excruciating to watch. While these characters offer respite in the form of their unexpected and unusual scenes, they cannot save the film from a sense of monotony. It is not so much that Live By Night is slow-paced; just that not a huge amount of things happen, leaving a lot of the film feel like a montage of Coughlin’s criminal activities, some of which are business meetings and supervising production that does not make for interesting scenes.
Affleck valiantly attempts to portray a man struggling to maintain his morality whilst overseeing a criminal empire and administering brutal violence. Ultimately, however, he falls short of giving the character enough depth to make him an adequately sympathetic protagonist or foster a truly compelling narrative. Affleck’s emotions in Live By Night are predominantly confined to a beige pastiche of lacklustre facial expressions, ranging from polite discontent to mild annoyance. Whilst he is occasionally deeply menacing, these (much needed) instances are few and far between and the emphasis is on a soft-spoken, supposedly good-hearted criminal who does not want to be a gangster. This could work but it rarely does here and Affleck’s eventual display of emotion near the end of the film does little to offset his otherwise grumblingly nonchalant performance.
Live By Night is certainly watchable and at times gripping as a gangster film. The nature of the era itself (racism, gang warfare and prohibition) contains the basis of a good story. The mistake lies not with the quality of Affleck’s acting but with his unconvincing characterisation and the emphasis on his moral struggle. Whether he is “cruel enough” to be a gangster is a non-issue, however much the film tries to make it otherwise. Overall, Live By Night is quite good: as a visually rich, 1930s crime drama with occasional undertones of religion and racism. Just don’t expect to find too much substance underneath the costumes.