Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 2 hours 9 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violence, Language throughout, and some Sexuality/Nudity
Directed by: Ben Affleck
Written by: Ben Affleck
(based on the novel LIVE BY NIGHT by Dennis Lehane)
Starring: Ben Affleck, Elle Fanning, Brendan Gleeson, Chris Messina, Sienna Miller, Zoe Saldana, Chris Cooper & Robert Glenister
Before the end of 2016, Ben Affleck’s LIVE BY NIGHT was being touted as a potential gangster epic and an Oscar contender. Things didn’t quite work out in Affleck’s favor though, because this film wound up empty-handed with no major award nominations and lost an estimated 75 million at the box office. This was especially disappointing for me because I’m a giant gangster movie fan and Affleck has proven himself to be a capable director/writer in the past (e.g. THE TOWN). A lot of NIGHT’s problems come down to its mixed bag script and messy pacing, but it still remains a decent outing for gangster fans.
It’s the 1920’s and the place is Boston. Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck) is a WWI veteran turned outlaw. Joe doesn’t consider himself a gangster, but he hangs out and commits crimes with gangsters on a regular basis. Joe also has developed a major crush on Emma Gould (Sienna Miller), the gal pal of dangerous Irish mob boss Albert White (Robert Glenister). After things unexpectedly go south, Joe finds himself saddled with a three-year prison sentence and a desire to get revenge on White. Joe’s chance for vengeance comes in a highly illegal job opportunity in Tampa, Florida. However, Joe’s newfound gangster lifestyle (though he still refuses to call himself a gangster) presents a series of new challenges.
The first positive qualities that immediately stick out in LIVE BY NIGHT are stellar production values. This film nails the time period it’s presenting through lavish costumes, convincing effects, old-fashioned settings, and authentic-looking vehicles. This is a period piece gangster story through and through. However, it also contains a number of well-worn gangster clichés. These include: an admittedly cool car chase, Joe’s by-the-numbers quest for revenge, lots of threat-laden conversations, a few bullet-ridden confrontations, and a cheesy voiceover narration that guides the viewer through the entire story.
LIVE BY NIGHT injects a fresh component into the clichéd Prohibition-era gangster story through its Tampa, Florida location. Plenty of gangster epics have been set in Boston, the Bronx, and Chicago, but I can’t think of many that took the Tampa approach. This setting throws a new an interesting flavor into the clichéd gangster recipe. One business-related subplot involves Joe building a partnership with a Cuban crime family and the most entertaining events involve a bloody feud with the Ku Klux Klan. Another interesting challenge comes in the backwoods religious folks who are deeply opposed to rum-running and gambling…because God.
Even with this neat location, LIVE BY NIGHT falls far short of its gangster epic ambitions. This is mainly due to shoddy pacing and one unconvincing subplot. The film’s opening fifteen minutes are dedicated to a prologue that somehow feels like it’s on fast-forward, despite taking fifteen whole minutes to set up. The film also has a disappointing tendency to run through some of the most interesting bits (like a gang war and Joe rising to the top of Tampa’s rum-running businesses) in montages. The script’s most egregious offense of poorly developing its plot comes in a half-assed romance that consists of a dance montage, brief flirting and one of the worst sex scenes that I’ve sat through in a long time. Still, we’re supposed to care about Zoe Saldana as Joe’s newfound love-interest, even though the viewer is given no reason to care at all.
Ben Affleck deliberately plays Joe as an “outlaw,” not a gangster. Sure, he affiliates with gangsters on a daily basis and isn’t above killing or stealing, but he’s no “gangster.” Affleck’s downbeat performance as solemn-faced Joe has good bits and bad bits, ultimately making for a so-so protagonist. Chris Messina is far better as Joe’s comic relief sidekick and lends a fierce attitude to the action-oriented moments. Chris Cooper gives the film’s best performance as a “non-corruptible” sheriff, while Elle Fanning has a memorable part as his faithful preaching daughter. Meanwhile, Robert Glenister and Remo Girone are intimidating as two rival mob bosses. Disappointingly, Brendan Gleeson has about five minutes of screen time and Sienna Miller plays an over-the-top Irish stereotype.
LIVE BY NIGHT has the pieces of a great film lurking somewhere within its messy execution, but bad pacing and a few forgotten subplots really kill this film’s lofty aspirations. The Tampa location adds much-needed freshness into the fun (but dusty) gangster clichés. The cinematography is beautiful and the production values are big. Occasionally, a truly fantastic scene makes its way through the film’s numerous problems (e.g. a suspenseful car chase, a showdown with the KKK, and a bullet-filled finale in a hotel). Still, LIVE BY NIGHT can’t live up to its gangster epic promises. This is an entertaining enough time for gangster movie fans, but don’t expect anything great.