There are many headlines to this film. One can say it was Ben Affleck’s first directorial work following the award-winning Argo, or that Ben Affleck is heavily invested in this film, having taken on roles as writer, director, co-producer and lead actor on the project. Some even say that this is another book-to-film adaptation of one of prolific novelist Dennis Lehane’s works, which include Gone, Baby, Gone, Mystic River and Shutter Island which all made it to the big screen. Though unlike previous film adaptations of Lehane’s novels, Live by Night turned out to be an unlikely box office flop.
After watching the film, I attempted to figure out where it all went wrong. For one thing, Live by Night does not take on the same style that many legendary films of its same mobster genre has. The film overused the narrative device to tell, rather than show, the story within its limited timeframe. There are too many characters with insufficient time to flesh each one out enough for the audience to care. Yet, it seems all this is done so that Affleck can tell the epic story in full detail, and epic it is, spanning almost 20 years.
While some critics have suggested that a tale on this epic scale might have done better as a mini series, or an episodic television drama, I applaud Affleck’s gumption for making this film. Yes, it is not your usual, commercial script, but it is bold in its attempt to tell a complete story, showing Affleck’s respectable commitment to storytelling as a filmmaker.
Affleck plays Joe Coughlin, a war veteran of Irish descent turned outlaw, and a flawed, troubled, anti-hero. He is the son of the Boston police captain, a constantly conflicted man who is not inherently bad, a romantic even, but just does bad things. Sienna Miller plays Emma Gould, mistress of the Irish Mob boss, and Joe’s love interest (and downfall). She is an enigmatic character, and Affleck gave her the space and screen time to portray this wild child for all the hidden pain behind that defiant smile.
After Emma betrays Joe, he ends up in Tampa, Florida, where he meets and falls in love with Zoe Saldana’s Graciela Corrales, sister to the Cuban businessman who will allow Joe to rebuild his business. She is not the average damsel but is a rather virtuous and woman of strong character, exuding charm and wisdom. She is gorgeous, elegant, intelligent and admirable, a tall order for any actress to take on. Affleck successfully portrayed her in that amazing light.
Then there is Elle Fanning’s beautiful ingénue, Loretta Figgis, daughter of Sheriff Irving Figgis who is off to a career in Hollywood. It is not explained how she ended up a heroin-addicted prostitute there instead, or how Joe found out about it and tracked her down. This entire thread can be a story on its own, but time does not allow for that, so is the character’s backstory is revealed only in conversation.
All three women give mesmerizing performances and are romanticized feminine characters. When Ben Affleck’s character Joe interacts with them, Ben Affleck the director lifts them up and gives them just the right amount of lighting, at the right angle and with enough screen time for them to pull off their meaningful looks which speak volumes. As an actor, I appreciate Ben Affleck’s generosity in giving his actresses a chance to shine and be the focus.
Joe, our protagonist, has mountains stacked against him, working first with the Irish mob, then the Italian mob, and then having both turn against him. He also has to defend his business and his love interests from these mobsters as well as the Ku Klux Klan. On top of that, he has the political climate working against him, having to deal with corrupt government and police forces. These are all rich details and subplots to an epic story that leaves the audiences craving to be satiated with all the details played out on big screen instead of being glossed over – a feat that is very difficult to accomplish in 129 minutes. Perhaps like The Godfather, this story should have been a trilogy where each sub-plot is given the time of day to fully transpire
However, as a standalone feature film, Ben Affleck did a good job as a storyteller because the main series of events are clear and explained. The cinematography by Robert Richardson makes for a visually stunning film. Everything from the wardrobe styling and art direction is meticulous, and tackles different time period (1920s – 1940s) and locations across America. Action sequences are also enjoyable, particularly the excellent vintage car chase post-bank robbery. The violent mob fights and shootouts are also thrilling. This is a film that has got everything covered; from performances to authenticity to action.