Live by Night Review
AMBITIOUS AND INTRIGUING,
BUT NOT WELL-ROUNDED
American author Dennis Lehane has worn many hats over the years, partaking in various media outlets in his creative works. Debuting his first novel (A Drink Before the War) in 1994, Lehane then continued to write, producing several successful novels, with some a part of a series and some standalone stories. While critics and avid readers loved Lehane’s works, Hollywood had also caught the eye of his novels, with several film adaptations of his books, including The Drop, Mystic River, Gone, Baby, Gone, and Shutter Island. In addition, Lehane has also worked on several TV projects, including HBO shows The Wire (for story and teleplay) and creative consultant on Boardwalk Empire. Now, actor / director Ben Affleck and Warner Bros. Pictures, present the newest film adaptation from Lehane with the movie Live by Night. Does this latest “page to screen” film bring Lehane’s story to life or does fail make to the jump?
A WWI vet who lost his taste for mindless brutality, Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck) returns to his native home of Boston to making a living with a series quick “snatch and grab” robberies, joined by his partner in crime Dion Bartolo (Chris Messina). His crime talents are noticed by Irish mobster boss Albert White (Robert Glenister), who enlists Coughlin in his underworld gang of organized crime. However, Joe’s attention is drawn to White’s lover, Emma Gould (Sienna Miller), with the pair sharing a forbidden and dangerous affair. This is soon discovered by White, who dutifully, tosses Coughing out of his organization. Seeking vengeance against White, Coughlin turns to Italian mob, working for rival gangster Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone), and heads up to Tampa, Florida, to help build Pescatore’s rum-running business. Finding a new life down south, Coughlin warms up to the charm of Garciela Corrales and begins to build his empire in Ybor City, through his mafia ambitions are thwarted by local troublemakers and organizations, forcing the stoic to reassess his priorities.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
Working at a bookstore, I do know who Dennis Lehane is and some of his titles of his works as well as some of the movies that were adapted from his novels (Mystic River, Shutter Island, and Gone, Baby, Gone). Sadly, I haven’t read one his novels. Well, if I’m being honest, I remember I tried to read The Given Day (the first book in Lehane’s Coughlin’s series), but loss interest in it. However, after watching Live by Night, I might give The Given Day another try (maybe sometime later this year). I remember seeing the trailer for Live by Night and was immediately hooked. I think Ben Affleck is a good actor as well as a director (I love The Town and Argo), so I was definitely interested in seeing this movie when it got released in theaters. After seeing the movie, I felt that Live by Night has all the makings of something remarkable (the story, characters, actors, cinematography, and setting backdrop, but is marred by its lack of focus, pacing issues, and crammed narrative. It’s not as bad as some making it out to be, but it was far from being the next big crime drama feature film.
With Live by Night being based on Dennis Lehane’s book (the second book in his Coughlin series), the movie is directed by Ben Affleck. Affleck has made a name for himself in Hollywood (and also a leading man), but also has become known for his work behind the camera as a director. Live by Night is not the definitive work of Affleck’s role as a director, but it is still a great addition to his body of work (he has a better track record than some actor turn directors). Given the film’s source material, Affleck has an interesting painting to paint, utilizing Lehane’s work as a blueprint to craft an intriguing period piece of love, betrayal, power, and corruption.
One of the most interesting aspect of Live by Night that I personally like is the film’s backdrop setting and cinematography. Using its setting, viewers can easily slide into a familiar world of gangsters, guns, bootlegging, the rise and fall of individuals. However, the story uses the setting of Tampa (Ybor City) as a new locale, which is a bit unconventional for these types of gangster period pieces (usually the setting takes places in Boston, New York, Jersey, or Chicago). Of course, being a crime drama movie, Live by Night has the thrills of gangster film, including a car chase sequences through the streets of Boston as well as a big climatic shootout during the film’s third act (which is kind of cool). The cinematography (done by Robert Richardson) shows the stark contrast between the two juxtapose settings, seeing the city of Boston in a dull and dreary place (colors are muted and dialed down) and the setting in Tampa is awash with more vivid color and more celebratory life with its denizens that dwell there. In short, the setting for Live by Night is both familiar and new (as well as its nuances) and the film’s cinematography enhances the movie beautifully. As a side-note, the film’s score (composed by Harry Gregson-Williams) is good and sort of reminds me of his other previous work on Affleck’s other movie The Town.
Unfortunately, problems to arise within the movie, making Live by Night a good or okay movie rather than a great or awesome movie. Perhaps the biggest (and most noteworthy) criticism comes from the adapting of the source material from Lehane’s novel. While Affleck directs the film, he also does pens Live by Night’s script, which may be part of the problem. I’m not saying Affleck can write a screenplay, but with him writing, directing, and starring in such an ambitious movie, Affleck wears “too many hats” on this film project. Anyway, like I said, the problem is in adapting Lehane’s novel as movie screenplay. Because the narrative to Lehane’s story is so dense (covering so many characters, events, and topics), the movie feels strained in order to try and tackle such narrative beats / plot points. Again, this harkens back to the time constraints placed on a feature film when adapting something from “page to screen”. This means that several of the story narrative threads are presented, but only some are fully developed, while others are given a glossy overview, barely scratching the surface to behind it.
In my personal opinion, what Live by Night should’ve been (instead of feature film) is a TV series on one of the premium channels (set in a similar fashion to HBO’s Boardwalk Empire), with Ben Affleck sets as the series’ executive producer. If it was done this way, Live by Night could’ve had a long run (I imagine running for 4 or 5 seasons), with enough time to devote to side characters, developing a seasoned story arcs, and examining the whole tale of Lehane’s novel, with a splash of creative licensee to spice up events here and there. However, this is just a “what if” scenario as the movie Live by Night is overstuffed with too many narrative beats and not enough time to examine all in its 128-minute runtime.
In addition, because the movie has a lot of story to cram into the film, the feature sometimes lacks focus, creating confusing scenarios plot points as well as some pacing issues, especially during the film’s epilogue, which seems to drag on for quite some time. Also, Live by Night suffers the same problem with other gangster / organized crime movies (most notably in the films Black Mass and Legend). The problem is that the movie utilizes the overlay of expositional narration for the feature, using the tactic as a way to give insight into characters and events. While useful in some areas, it’s mostly just comes off as simply “telling” viewers something is important rather than “showing” it, which can feel contrive in a movie that has a lot of ground to cover and wants to show us all of it.
Of course, with Ben Affleck directing and writing Live by Night, he also stars in the movie, playing the central protagonist character Joe Coughlin. Affleck certainly does look and take the part of the bootlegging gangster during the prohibition area, talking the talk and walking the walk of Coughlin (always looking dabber in filling out those mobster suits). While Affleck is great in his acting ability and playing a lead role in movies, the role of Coughlin doesn’t really challenge him in both his either his acting talents or in powerful portrayal of a character. That’s not to say its enjoyable to see Affleck as Coughlin, so you might just have dial down your expectations a bit (don’t expect his portrayal of Coughlin to be nominated for any upcoming award shows). In short, Affleck is good in playing Coughlin, but the character of Coughlin is a tad undeveloped.
The supporting cast in Live by Night is a very recognizable, with some top-notch and talented assemblage of actors and actresses. Chris Messina, known for his roles in Argo, The Mindy Project, The Newsroom, acts as the somewhat “levity” character as Coughlin’s partner, Dion Bartolo. However, while Messina brings his talents to the role, the character of Dion, like Coughlin, isn’t fully brought into the foreground and fully developed, acting as the cliché second-lieutenant of a mobster gangster. The character could’ve been more interesting, but with many other storylines playing out, his character sort of gets lost and becomes what the movie needs him to be. The same can be said with Zoe Saldana’s character Graciela Corrales. Saldana, known for his roles in Avatar, the new Star Trek movies, and Guardians of the Galaxy, as the right amount of allure and mystery to the character of Graciela, but (again) the character suffers because of the many storylines playing out, becoming the simplistic love interest for Coughlin. Perhaps the standout role in the movie is in the role of Loretta Figgis, who is played by Elle Fanning. Known for her roles in Neon Demon and Maleficent, Fanning’s Loretta has some poignant seems and does capture some memorable scenes in the feature.
Seasoned actors Sienna Miller, Chris Cooper, Robert Glenister, and Brendan Gleeson are defined in the movie by their conversations or plot devices rather than fully fledged side characters, playing the roles of the saucy Emma Gould, local police sheriff Irving Figgis, Irish mobster kingpin Albert White, and the Joe’s police captain father Thomas Coughlin. Basically, these four roles fall-in-line with gangster archetypes from the crime drama genre. All these supporting characters do help the movie add some texture in its rich period setting, allowing Coughlin’s story (and the movie) to progress forward through events. It’s just shame that some aren’t fully developed to completely enrich this tale.
Greed, power, revenge (and repent) are the keys ingredients found in the movie Live by Night. Actor / director Ben Affleck newest film follows the rise and fall of gangster kingpin in the Prohibition “bootlegging” days of the US. This film is well-made and beautifully crafted, with an interesting story to tell, which is aided by Lehane’s source material and the film’s fine cast of characters. Unfortunately, the feature is overstuffed, lacks focus, underdeveloped characters, and bit much in the exposition, making the feature sluggish at times and haphazard in its storytelling in want to show the fully tale of Coughlin’s journey. To me, I liked the movie (probably better than most). Sure, it was a bit disorganized and not as powerful as it could’ve been, but it was still a well-made and satisfying movie that I’ll buy when it comes out on Blu-Ray. If you like Ben Affleck or period piece gangster movies, then Live by Night is for you. However, its noteworthy pitfalls can be glaring to some, which is why I would say that this movie is (as a whole) is an iffy-choice. With an intriguing backdrop, beautiful cinematography, solid performances, Live by Night has the makings of something grand and does succeed in certain areas. It’s just sad that, much like the character Joe Coughlin, Affleck’s Live by Night can’t live up to its lofty ambitions.
3.4 Out of 5 (Iffy-Choice)
Released On: January 13th, 2017
Reviewed On: January 17th, 2017
Live by Night runs 129 minutes and is Rated R for strong violence, language throughout, and some sexuality/nudity