Movie Review: Live by Night (2016)

“Joe was once a good man”

1 Stars
Live by Night (2016)

Live by Night (2016)


Director: Ben Affleck

Cast: Ben Affleck, Elle Fanning, Brendan Gleeson

Synopsis: A maverick outlaw throws in his lot with the mob as a way to gain revenge on the man who killed his lover.

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Ben Affleck’s previously successful directing career hits its first stumbling block with Live by Night, a handsome recreation of prohibition-era America which is reasonably entertaining when it sticks to the murky business of the underworld, but falls apart when focusing on the personal life and loves of it’s lead.   As well as starring in the movie, Affleck (Suicide Squad, The Accountant) adapted Dennis Lehane’s novel and also acted as producer, placing himself squarely in the firing line when the critics got a look at it.   The widespread condemnation of the film is perhaps a little harsh, but Live by Night falls far short of the standards of Affleck’s previous attempts at directing, thanks largely to a lacklustre plot and a central character who never really rings true.

His name is Joe Coughlin, and, like many young men of his generation, he returns from WWI to a country that has quickly forgotten its debt to them.   Coughlin’s experiences during the bloody conflict have forged a determination to never have to follow the orders of other men, and for the best part of a decade he lives the charmed life of a maverick outlaw who evades the arm of the law, much to the dismay of his Irish police captain father (Brendan Gleeson – Pursuit, In the Heart of the Sea).   However, his affair with Emma Gould (Sienna Miller – Alfie), the mistress of mobster Albert White (Robert Glenister), results in him becoming caught in the middle of a gang war between White and rival gangster Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone), and forever changes the direction of his life.   He narrowly avoids being killed by White thanks to the timely intervention of his father, who informs him that Emma wasn’t so fortunate.   It’s a piece of news that drives Coughlin to throw in his lot with Mescarpone on the condition that he’s allowed to kill White when the opportunity arises.   Mescarpone agrees, and despatches his new recruit to Florida where, with the aid of his sidekick, Dion (Chris Messina – Devil, Manglehorn), he quickly expands the organisation’s bootlegging operations.

Never one of Hollywood’s most expressive actors, Affleck looks morose and uncomfortable in the role of Coughlin.   He’s supposed to be this immensely personable Boston charmer, but comes across as a bland composite of every screen good/bad guy you can think of.   Too good to be a genuine bad guy, he’s also not good enough to be a sympathetic hero, even though the film strives to give the impression he’s a blameless victim of fate and circumstance whose whole life is realigned upon a misperception.  His motive of revenge is largely forgotten as the film immerses itself in the sweaty realm of bootleggers, and a sub-plot involving the mob’s bloody confrontation with the Ku Klux Klan – which would make a great plot for an entire movie – is dealt with in a matter of minutes.

At least the action is well-staged, and there are some diverting performances from Chris Cooper (The Muppets, The Amazing Spiderman 2) as a local police chief and Elle Fanning as his sweet daughter, a recovering heroin addict whose religious preaching against the casino Coughlin is trying to build plants the seeds for his inevitable downfall.

(Reviewed 21st March 2017)





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