Film Review: Live By Night

The month of January trudges on as we move on to a film I had rather high hopes for after seeing Ben Affleck’s other directorial efforts including the likes of Argo, The Town and Gone Baby Gone. I enjoyed all three of those a great deal and was looking forward to his fourth effort and also the planned Batman film that he is set to direct. Here’s the thing: on The Town and Gone Baby Gone, he not only directed the films but also co-wrote the screenplay. In this one, he is the sole screenwriter credited in the film. Now while that may not seem like a big deal to mention, it definitely feels less focused than his other works and I think a big part of that is Affleck not having a co-writer/sounding board to keep the script on track and then he serves as his own director, which certainly makes it more difficult to see any weak points he may have created in the script.

The plot concerns the story of low-life crook Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck), who is his own man and tends to act on his own in terms of his crime sprees rather than supporting either gangster Albert White (Robert Glenister) or Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone). He is, however, completely in love with Emma Gould (Sienna Miller), who unfortunately is also Albert’s mistress. Once the tryst is discovered when Emma rats him out under duress, Joe is nearly killed by Albert and his men. He makes a full recovery though and aligns himself with Pescatore, thus taking over Tampa and dealing with elements like the Sheriff, the KKK and the religious sect.

That sounds like an awful lot of stuff, doesn’t it? That’s because it is way too much for this film to really handle. I would say that this film registers just above a “noble failure.” There is clearly a lot at work and Affleck has put a great deal of work into the script at covering lots of different bases but it doesn’t really pay off. For instance, the film starts as a revenge flick with Affleck’s Joe trying to get to Victor for nearly killing him and for the death of Emma (it’s the kicker to get the plot rolling – not a spoiler) and I am on-board with that but then it turns into a study of life during the Great Depression, racism and religion spreading throughout the south and the introduction of way too many characters. It hops from scene to scene without a whole lot of momentum and just seems to be more interested in getting to the next scene, some of which drag on for too long, rather than moving the plot forward.

Despite all those criticisms… and this is going to sound crazy to you… but I didn’t hate it. I didn’t LOVE IT but… it wasn’t awful. The film still has a weird charm to it. Even though I was never fully enveloped into this world of gangsters and guns, I still had a bit of enjoyment watching some of the scenes, especially the ones filled with gunfights because the way in which they are shot is that of a no-holds-barred style without holding anything back. It’s rated R for a reason, folks. The other strength that lies in the film is its cast. While Ben Affleck may have some limitations when he writes a screenplay solo, there is no denying that he is a fine actor and has a great presence on-screen no matter what film he is in. I only wish his character would have been more interesting because we have to follow him for 2 hours+ and his journey is rather clunky.

The rest of the cast is pretty decent as well. Brendan Gleeson stands out for me as Joe’s father even though he only appears in a handful of scenes. Sienna Miller also has a small role but generally makes the most of it despite not really getting a whole lot to do other than look good and speak with her sexy accent. Chris Messina almost steals the show as Affleck’s partner-in-crime. He’s slick and seemingly a mobster stereotype but also soft-spoken and loyal, which kind of breaks that very stereotype. Chris Cooper is another heavyweight actor in the film and does a solid job even if his scenes feel a bit saccharine at times. Zoe Saldana is yet another performer in the film who takes a role that might otherwise feel inconsequential but because of her talents, she is able to make it work and get something out of it. Saldana is highly underrated as an actress.

Another surprise was Matthew Maher (who I remember affectionately as the poor hapless “holy bartender” in Dogma) as RD Pruitt, a KKK member with a penchant for looting and murder. His unique way of speaking combined with his sociopathic behaviour makes for a fascinating character that is in the movie for far less screentime than he deserves. It was weird to see Elle Fanning in such a grown-up role but she does admirably as well. In particular, her character probably goes through the most changes as we see her go from bright-eyed ingenue to sin-casting preacher to broken shell of a person. She delivers all three with aplomb and her final scene in the film is probably the best acting display in its entire runtime.

So, that’s the thing with this movie. I had a really hard time coming up with a rating for it because I didn’t feel confident about it either way. The first 30 minutes of the movie are awkwardly paced and feel a bit convoluted. Once the film goes into its second act with Affleck moving up through the ranks of the crime world, it does get a little bit better but it still encounters problems with pacing from time to time. The film does suffer from “Return of the King” syndrome too in which it goes through a seemingly endless amount of finales before finally reaching its conclusion at a fairly well-done moment.

Yes, the film has its fair share of flaws but the acting, the action, and elements of the story carry it forward and make it at least worth a rental after its release on video. Here’s hoping for stronger Affleck directorial efforts in the future.

RATING: ***

 

Rating System:

Less than * (Actively offensive to one’s intelligence)

* (Brutal; bottom-of-the-barrel)

** (Some elements keep it from being awful but still not very good)

*** (Completely watchable; a rental as old-timers might say)

**** (Great film with a few things here and there keeping it from being perfect)

***** (Flawless; a true achievement)