Live by Night: Movie Review
So far three of Dennis Lehane’s novels have been adapted for the screen, and though Shutter Island wasn’t as good as Gone Baby Gone, which wasn’t as good as Mystic River, they were all solid movies and beautifully directed (by Martin Scorsese, Ben Affleck, and Clint Eastwood respectively).
Likewise Affleck has directed three movies to this point, and though Gone Baby Gone wasn’t as good as The Town, which wasn’t as good as Argo, all three were far better than the norm.
Eventually, though, the law of averages catches up to people, and the fourth Lehane novel to get the film treatment is the fourth film directed by Affleck, and Live by Night is easily the weakest of the bunch.
Opening in Prohibition-era Boston, Live by Night focuses on Joe Coughlin (Affleck), a criminal (though he prefers the term “outlaw” to “gangster”) who robs the occasional bank or high-stakes poker game while being sure to avoid taking sides in the city’s turf war between the Irish and Italian mobs. That all changes, though, when Coughlin falls for Emma (Sienna Miller), the girlfriend of Irish mob boss Albert White (Robert Glenister). After one last job he plans to run to California with Emma, but as often happens, things go unexpectedly wrong, and Coughlin ends up behind bars with a shortened sentence courtesy of his police captain father.
Three years later Coughlin is out and vowing revenge on White, so he joins up with Italian boss Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone), who dispatches Coughlin to Tampa to run the mob’s rum-running operation. Coughlin quickly works his way up the ladder and soon has his eyes on expanding the business by opening a casino. While the local police chief (the always reliable Chris Cooper) won’t tolerate corruption he’s nonetheless able to turn a blind eye to the mob’s dealings. The chief’s daughter Loretta (Elle Fanning), however, is a devout Christian, and she quickly rouses the local flock to stand behind her efforts to prevent gambling in her community.
Beyond all that, there’s another half-dozen storylines also being tossed at us, including Coughlin’s budding romance with Graciella (Zoe Saldana), a handful of attacks by the Ku Klux Klan on Coughlin’s interests, and Maso’s growing frustration at Coughlin’s problems with the locals.
Affleck, for his part, does offer up some stellar work from the director’s chair (helped every step of the way by noted cinematographer Robert Richardson, who frequently serves the same role for both Tarantino and Scorsese), but the screenplay that Affleck adapted himself suffers from his trying to squish an epic, sprawling novel into a two-hour movie. Just as one subplot gets going, another muscles its way in, and before we know it Affleck simply has too many balls in the air.
The most obvious comparison to Live by Night is the Coen brothers’ masterpiece Miller’s Crossing. Both share not only the same vernacular (“I’m sick’a gettin’ the hi-hat!”) but also a keen eye for era-specific detail, but that’s where the similarities cease. While Miller’s Crossing is infused with a gritty and harsh sense of the early ’20s in mob-run America, Live by Night often feels more like a herky-jerky march toward an inevitable conclusion. And when we finally do reach the finish line, we’re left with an unsatisfying end to an all-too-familiar ride.
It would be nice to think Affleck could get back on the horse and find some more inspired material with which to redeem himself in his next outing, but back in April it was announced his next project is a stand-alone Batman movie. And considering how much of a disaster his first go-round as the Caped Crusader was, it’s hard to be optimistic.