“Live by Night” ambitious but aimless

January 13, 2017

Love, trust, greed, ambition, and making your own way; these are some of the themes that “Live by Night” tries to explore. Yet the film, written and directed by Ben Affleck (Argo), ends up being an aimless gangster movie.

Based on a novel of the same name by Dennis Lehane, “Live by Night” stars Affleck as Joe Coughlin, a WWI vet that returns home and climbs the ranks of the underworld in prohibition-era America. Zoe Saldana (Guardians of the Galaxy) plays Graciela, Affleck’s love interest, and the film also features some solid performances from Sienna Miller, Chris Cooper, Elle Fanning, and Robert Glenister.

The film opens with a voice over from a sad-sounding Ben Affleck talking about the war and how he doesn’t plan on following anyone’s rules again. Coughlin starts working for Irish mob boss Albert White (Glenister), and as is the rule in so many of these types of gangster films, Coughlin of course falls in love with the boss’s girl, Emma (Miller). How can we tell that they are in love? Because Emma and Coughlin are shown having sex when Affleck’s voice over describes how in love they are.

Coughlin does a bank job with two of his friends and it leads to a well shot and exciting car chase scene that eventually leaves three police officers dead.

After Coughlin refuses to help Italian Mob boss Maso Pescatore kill White, Pescatore informs White about Coughlin’s and Emma’s affair. White has Coughlin nearly beaten to death but is saved at the last minute by police. The police also beat Coughlin and then he gets sentenced to life in prison but his sentence is reduced to three years when his father, a Boston police captain played by Brendan Gleeson, blackmails a chief inspector.

There were no scenes of Coughlin inside of prison, he gets out as quickly as he gets in. There probably could have been some interesting scenes from inside prison, but Affleck doesn’t even try to paint a picture of it. After being released he goes back to work for Pescatore who is establishing a rum empire in Tampa, Florida, and wants Coughlin to run his operations down there. Coughlin begins to work with one of his old partners, Dion, played by Chris Messina. Messina is supposed to be playing the wisecracking sidekick that wears ugly suits and stupid ties; a fun counter to Affleck’s tough outlaw with a heart of gold.

Coughlin becomes interested in a Cuban businessman’s sister, Graciela (Saldana). Unfortunately, Saldana’s character, as most others in this film, are boring and don’t have much personality.  Graciela and Coughlin eventually get married; It seems that for Affleck, light flirting and kissing is a basis for marriage. There is some sub story about Graciela wanting to open up a shelter for abused women and children, but it seems like a quick shot at trying to give her some character. It’s unfortunate that an actress as talented as Saldana is underutilized and plays a character that could have had a stronger role.

There are some strong scenes involving Police Chief Figgis, played by Cooper, and his drug addicted daughter, Loretta (Fanning) that Coughlin uses to bribe Figgis. There are also some run-ins with the KKK and Affleck shows with a stern face and clenched fist that he is not a fan of racism. There is also some use of the “N-word” which could be an attempt to portray the racial prejudice of the times, but just seems like it’s trying to be edgy.

Pescatore is trying to set up a casino in Tampa and is depending on a law to pass to legalize gambling, but Loretta has become a popular Evangelical preacher that condemns the sin of gambling. Pescatore orders Coughlin to get rid of Loretta. Fanning does portray the passionate preacher who truly believes what she preaches, very well.

Pescatore then sets up Coughlin to be killed by White and an explosive shootout ensues. Coughlin leaves the business to Dion, and leaves to live with Graciela and their new son.

The 1920’s sets and the attention to detail is quite impressive, and Affleck does have a good eye for direction and knows how to pace an action scene. The story is quite ambitious and Affleck tries to tackle a lot of themes, but he can’t keep it focused and ultimately makes it revolve around him. Unfortunately, Affleck’s acting in this film makes it hard to get absorbed into the film.

Affleck has stated that he wanted to make a “classic Warner’s picture”, unfortunately “Live by Night” is a formulaic gangster movie with boring characters that leave the film to be a forgettable one.

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