Live by Night (2016)

  • Time: 128 min
  • Genre: Crime | Drama
  • Director: Ben Affleck
  • Cast: Ben Affleck, Sienna Miller, Zoe Saldana, Elle Fanning, Brendan Gleeson


A story set in the Prohibition Era and centered around a group of individuals and their dealings in the world of organized crime.


  • Ah yes, another holdover from last year. So OK, would I put it in my top ten? Oh absotively I would. Here goes nothing:

    What I learned from Live by Night (my latest review), is that Ben Affleck has yet to make a bad movie. His direction here is lush and unwittingly glossy. The cinematography, set design, period detail, and costume design concerning “Night”, are all of the highest order (the goons love their fedoras, the women love their Cloches).

    “Night’s” setting is 1920’s Boston and late 1920’s South Florida. A frenzied car chase here, a speedy robbery there. Yeah, this is Affleck’s The Cotton Club (minus the dancing), his Public Enemies, his Road to Perdition. It’s the Good Ol’ Days coupled with the good old boys. Yup, it’s a slam-bang action style event.

    Anyway, Ben Affleck plays Joe Coughlin, a World War I veteran. He’s a small time crook who doesn’t want to be a gangster but ends up being one anyway. Like Affleck’s own trouper in The Town, he’s a nice guy criminal who eventually wants to leave the bad guy life. He’s not about the kills and he’s not about the forgone anguish. Affleck has cast himself in the lead in three of the four films he has helmed. Out of Argo, “Night”, and “Town”, Live by Night is his finest work lighting both ends of the candle. At 129 minutes, Live by Night is not overlong by most gangster flick standards. However, it could have used a little tighter editing. Nevertheless, its stride is frantic with Affleck’s camera flying all over the place (it truly whips and follows). Bullet-ridden, bloody, and despairing are words I would use in my hasty description.

    Live by Night is rampantly based on a novel by Dennis Lehane. The Drop, Mystic River, and Gone Baby Gone are other movies adapted from Lehane’s writing. In terms of the music, well the score by Harry Gregson-Williams gives Live by Night a sense of foreboding throughout. The cast including Brendan Gleeson, Elle Fanning, an unrecognizable Sienna Miller, and Zoe Saldana, harbor great supporting work throughout as well. Lastly, the concluding, gruesome shootout scene in “Night” is its ultimate pinnacle. I didn’t pick up on the irony firsthand. Regardless, it sealed my heralded recommendation.

    All in all, I’ve liked every single movie that Ben Affleck has ever directed. With 2016’s Live by Night, he’s now batting 1000. This film “lives” and breathes freely. Hot dawg! Rating: 3 and a half stars.

    Rating: 3.5 out of 4 stars

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  • If Live By Night, Ben Affleck’s fourth directorial effort and second film adaptation of a Dennis Lehane novel, were judged by looks alone, it would seem a success. His production team have done well by its Prohibition-era setting, its performers are beautifully costumed and lovingly lensed, and Affleck’s own affinity for old Hollywood’s gangster genre is palpable. Yet Live By Night is a decidedly hollow affair, enervating from its opening moments and failing to sustain any momentum or interest in its overstuffed narrative.

    “I left a soldier, I came home an outlaw,” says Joe Coughlin (Affleck), explaining how his experiences during World War I altered him from a presumably ethically sound man into a criminal ripping off banks and card games. He is hopelessly entangled in a passionate affair with Emma Gould (Sienna Miller), the mistress of deadly Irish mob boss Albert White (Robert Glenister, despite the disapproval of his police chief father (Brendan Gleeson), but there are some lines he won’t cross. When White’s rival and Italian mafia head Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone) tries to leverage Joe’s affair with Emma to convince him to kill White, Joe refuses to be drawn into the war between the two gangs: “I ain’t a gangster, I stopped kissing rings a long time ago.”

    Nevertheless, Joe does get pulled into the life after Emma betrays him, White’s gang beats him to within an inch of his life, and he’s thrown into jail for murdering three cops during a bank heist gone awry (though his dad convinces the district attorney to charge Joe with a more minor charge than murder). Upon his release, he vows revenge on White and goes to work for Pescatore, who sends him to Tampa to run his lucrative bootlegging operation. Joe settles into the next chapter of his life of crime, muscling out the local competition and anyone who would dare go against Pescatore, cozying up to local sheriff Irving Figgis (Chris Cooper), romancing Cuban immigrant Graciela Suarez (Zoe Saldana), and working on his dream to building a casino as another means of profit when Prohibition comes to an end. Naturally, it isn’t too long before everything goes pear-shaped when Irving’s brother-in-law, who happens to be a member of the local Ku Klux Klan, starts blowing up Joe’s club and killing his men.

    Live By Night, whose very title recalls noir classics They Drive By Night and They Live By Night, has all the genre requirements but it’s sorely lacking in soul. Affleck would have been wise to streamline the story as there are far too many characters and plot strands for a film that runs just a little over two hours. The result is a revolving door of talented actors making little to no impression and interpersonal dynamics gaining hardly any traction. Miller and Zaldana are fetchingly brassy and sensual, respectively, but they share zero chemistry with Affleck despite his including numerous love scenes with both actresses. The lack of connection especially affects the Joe and Emma relationship as it lessens the impact of her betrayal.

    Affleck himself contributes to the film’s issues with his borderline wooden performance adding to Live By Night’s overall listlessness. The only time he and the film are shaken out of their stupour are when Elle Fanning appears on the scene as Loretta Figgis, Irving’s daughter who goes from aspiring starlet to heroin-addicted prostitute to born-again preacher. Affleck’s screenplay barely sketches her trajectory, but the young actress builds those bridges. Live By Night could have easily jettisoned all of its first half and made Joe’s dealings with Loretta (whose character was inspired by Aimee McPherson, the era’s celebrity evangelist) as the bedrock of the film. Their exchanges have more than a hint of the dark complexity that pulsed through Lehane’s novel. Unfortunately, Affleck never goes into too dark a corner with either his acting, writing or directing and Live By Night suffers from being too safe and sanitised.

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  • Ben Affleck can make a good, smart film. In this richly detailed 1920s film noir he uses the genre conventions to anatomize contemporary America. That is, Donald Trump’s America.
    The film is framed by the two world wars. Joe Coughlin comes home from the First, disillusioned, betrayed by authority, determined to be an outlaw, despite his father’s being a prominent honest cop. At the end he has survived a gang war, won and walked away from a criminal empire, and lost his two great loves. At a Saturday matinee with his son, he watches a Hitler newsreel. Germany won’t go to war, he assures himself.
    Well, Germany did. WW II waits on the wings. Hitler’s strategies to turn a democracy into his dictatorship seem eerily repeated now. Proving Affleck’s prescience, the first days of the Trump presidency reveal the leader’s suppression of the press, science, education, dissent and the marginalized, the standard dictator’s game plan.
    In a genre film as in water, the flavour derives from the impurities, in the inflections played upon the familiar conventions.
    For example, Coughlin is a modest criminal, content to be a robber, with no ambition to be a gangster. He opts to stay out of the gang war. He’s (literally) a white suit villain which makes him a relative hero in this criminal world. “You realize to be free in this life, breaking the rules meant nothing. You have to be strong enough to make your own.” He eschews selling drugs and women, satisfied to deal just in demon rum and gambling. He also has the will to leave his evil empire behind.
    The film’s identity politics begins with the genre’s familiar clash between the Irish and the Italian criminal worlds. But Affleck digs deeper. Coughlin’s first love Emma is ruined by her inability to overcome not just the anti-Irish bigotry but her own lack of self-respect it causes. The clash between these ethnic groups also points to Trump’s cultivated prejudice against immigrants.
    A more significant inflection is the involvement of the Klu Kux Klan in this film’s criminality. I don’t remember the Klan as a significant player in any other American gangster film. Here it represents the bedrock of racism that persists in American culture and the criminal undertow in society’s more respectable areas, corporate, judicial, social. As the Grand Wizard says behind his cigar-factory desk, “We’re clerks, bankers, police officers, we ain’t gotta judge. And if ya gonna fight us, I’m gonna rain bloody hellfire down on you and all you love.” David Duke’s endorsement of Trump and celebration of his win confirm this currency.
    Affleck also adds the strong theme of religious fundamentalism, a pillar of the current Republican platform. Hence the Figgis subplot.
    Chief Figgis is an upfront cop who allows Coughlin a safe territory but also protects his crazed crooked brother-in-law (“dumb as a grape”). To turn Figgis against the overreaching dolt, Coughlin deploys what he knows about Figgis’s pretty young daughter. Her Hollywood dream shattered, the innocent Loretta has fallen into drugs and prostitution.
    Loretta’s story reflects upon America’s extremist right puritanism. Having pulled her out of the drug and prostitution scene, her father literally flays the sin out of her, an especially salacious discipline. The whipping is shadowed by her line, “He can’t stop thinking about other men doing to me what he did to my mother.” Here Figgis evokes the Republican moralists themselves busted for gay sex and adultery, the very targets of their righteous rhetoric. Figgis can’t forgive Coughlin for revealing his daughters fate to him, even though it enabled him to save her. He ends his life compulsively muttering “Repent,” then dies trying to kill Coughlin.
    Loretta turns into a moral crusader, sensationalizing her sinful past to win the reputation of a saver of souls. After thwarting Coughlin’s casino plans she privately tells him her own doubts about God and any heavenly afterlife. Then she slashes her throat — on her father’s bed. Her righteousness proves as inadequate as her self-debasement.
    From her Coughlin picks up the idea that the only heaven we ever have is this life and we’re messing it up. The heaven on earth is the point of the hero’s two great loves, one ended by betrayal, the other by the intrusion of the righteous madman. So, too, the violent narrative is punctuated with interludes of breath-taking beauty, whether scenes of nature or the elegance of a simple motion. When a man is thrown to his sidewalk death, his hat wafts down elegantly beside him. There is natural beauty, accidental beauty, but we’re turning our one and present heaven into hell.
    As a reflection upon today’s America, perhaps the film’s key scene is Coughlin’s final confrontation of his mentor Pescatore. Coughlin dismisses the mobster’s pretence to values and honour with a survey of all the communities who are helplessly deceived, exploited, abused and robbed by their systemic overlords. If the thus abused and deprived ever collect their will and force he would not want to stand between them and what they deserve. That energizing of the abused is what Hitler achieved — and what just got Donald J. Trump elected too, despite his utter inadequacy for the office.

  • “I swore If I made it home, I would never follow orders again. I left a soldier. I came home an outlaw.”

    Ben Affleck isn’t exactly one of my favorite actors. Not that he’s such a terrible actor, but he’s such a smooth guy who manages to play in some outstanding movies every time. Movies that didn’t leave an everlasting impression on me anyway. In retrospect, it’s really a giant list I’ve seen him in, such as “The Accountant”, “Suicide Squad”, “Batman v Superman”, “Gone Girl”, “Runner Runner”, “Paycheck”, “Changing Lanes”, “Pearl Harbor” and “Daredevil” (absolutely his worst performance). The only memorable role he played was in “Good Will Hunting”. Most probably it’s due to the participation of Matt Damon and Robin Williams. He was also successful as a producer and directed the absolute masterpiece “Argo”. With “Live by Night” he tries to be successful as leading actor and at the same time as a producer. But that’s a bridge too far in my opinion.

    The result is pleasing to the eye, but story wise it’s all rather messy and hopelessly complicated. The multiple story lines follow each other in a terrible pace. The main thread is about the prohibition era and illegal trade of alcoholic beverages. Furthermore there are some side plots in which the main role is claimed by a female character. At first Emma Gould (Sienna Miller), mistress of a mafia boss. Then there’s the sister of a Cuban business partner (Zoe Saldana). And finally, the daughter (Ella Fanning) of the sheriff from Tampa who’s being rescued by Joe (Ben Affleck) after she pursuit her luck in Hollywood and ended up as an addicted prostitute. Afterwards she turns out to be a prophet of doom who boycotts Joe’s plan to build a huge casino in Tampa.

    Just like “Argo”, this is an adaptation of a book by Dennis Lehane. In the past it’s often proved that making a film based on a book isn’t that easy. The big problem is to reproduce the details of a book into a movie. Usually as a result you get a jam packed film crammed with tangled story lines. The solution would be to split it up into multiple movies. But that’s not really applicable to “Live by night”. The most successful part is the way they portrayed this era by using excellent camera-work. A realistic view of America from the 20s, thanks to the magnificent sets, beautiful costumes and authentic props. Ultimately it’s not a truly epic gangster film, but the chase with old timers at the beginning of the film and the explosive ending led to some impressive images.

    In my opinion the biggest problem in this not so bad film, was the acting of Affleck himself. And this has nothing to do with his talent as an actor but rather with his goody-goody appearance. Without a doubt many mothers hope that their daughter would hook up with such a perfect guy. Ideal son in law material, so to speak. But as a gangster he fails completely. Because of his likable appearance his performance is absolutely implausible. Had they given this part to Michael Shannon for example, the tone of the film would have been harsher and more intimidating. You can safely say this was an ambitious project, but unfortunately it’s a soft version of any leading gangster epic from the past.

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