Live By Night has been labelled in some quarters as a Ben Affleck passion project. Not only does he take main role acting credit but he also directs, produces and writes the screenplay, in adapting this award-winning bestselling novel by Dennis Lehane. If this was indeed a text that Affleck holds so dear it was highly surprising to find that passion was, in fact, the one missing ingredient from what was a fairly turgid two hours viewing.
Affleck stars as WWI veteran Joe Coughlin, returning from war disgruntled, disaffected and angry. His anger is channelled not into peaceful protest or social justice campaigning after his experiences but channelled into gangsterism. His attack of the system is through self-proclaimed anti-establishment criminality, despite being the son of the Boston Police Deputy Superintendent (Brendan Gleeson). What unfolds is a tale of revenge, lust and desire for power.
Live By Night attempts to do many things throughout its running time. Switching between a straight forward gangster film, revenge tale and attempting to tackle racial politics and quasi theological mumblings about whether or not heaven is attainable, the film never picks one theme to focus on. Starting off with some flashback and heavy voice over storytelling the film lurches like a vehicle struggling to get into the right gear from the outset.
Outcast of society, and spurned by the mob he served Caughlin sets off to Florida to run rum for his ex-bosses’ enemy and plots his revenge amid the humidity and humdrum of prohibition Florida. Attempting power grabs as he goes and upsetting townsfolk, He growls lines through squinted eyes, dressed in white (bad guys never wear white) unrepentantly leaving bodies in his wake with little or no consequence.
A midway interlude where he encounters the KKK as opponents is the only mildly interesting part of the film and the only point that any attempt is made to go outside of the normal tropes. Sadly, however it is all too brief!
I was bored throughout Live By Night, every minute of this film felt like thirty! As a viewer I could not invest in any of plot strands or character. I wasn’t the only one though as everyone on screen appeared to be as disinterested as I was!
The multiple threads of story are so badly handled that characters, who momentarily appear pivotal, disappear all too quickly only to reappear 25 minutes later and resume their seemingly pointless conversation. Chief among these is Zoe Saldana who, as Coughlin’s love interest is woefully under used and only serves to occasionally offer some form of moral advice before making love to our ‘hero’ and then disappearing again.
Boardwalk Empire will always be the prohibition era textbook series for me. That series had heft, weight and gangsters who were able to be the worst of humanity and simultaneously display moral conflict, wrestling with their choices. Live By Night has no heft, no weight and is full of square jawed, characterless handsome gangsters who bear no scars of the life they lead. These Hugo Boss hoodlums wouldn’t last two minutes against Nucky Thompson’s men.
It is such a shame that such an array of talent and potential decent content has been so badly handled. I take no joy in saying that Live by Night is not a film to enjoy or even endure. It is simply one to avoid!
Live By Night is on general release from Friday 13 January.
Thanks to MovieHouse for screening access.