Ben Affleck’s fourth feature as director and the second of which to be based on a novel by Dennis Lehane, this time a story set during Prohibition and one man working in the world of organized crime, Joe Coughlin (Affleck) and his rise to power. Also starring: Chris Messina, Zoe Saldana, Sienna Miller, Brendan Gleeson, Elle Fanning, Chris Cooper and Robert Glenister.
The film starts out on a weak note, presenting images from the war while being backed by a rather monotone and uninviting narration by Affleck, it doesn’t exactly set things out for success but it does foreshadow the film’s overall quality. Moving past that it does get more interesting as we’re introduced to Joe and his associates as they commit various crimes, it livens things up and yet surprisingly any excitement or energy is kept at a fairly low level; mostly by choices of editing and direction to keep things less sharp. Other than the introduction of the rather disappointing and clichéd Irish Emma Gould played by Sienna Miller, attempting a love story, there’s very little time or effort given to begin any form of sympathy and connection for the character of Joe, whose film this very much is, gently undermining itself. Things do improve as the film begins it’s second chapter, moving down into Florida and allowing slightly more focus to be put onto the characters, particularly with the introduction of Zoe Saldana’s Graciella, the only drawback being that she’s given fairly little screen time or chance to develop what is a great, charismatic, strong and interesting character.
Things also take a turn for the better as Elle Fanning takes centre stage, the confidence grace but at the same time vulnerability and youth of her character is almost enchanting to watch, her close up scene with Affleck is a highlight of the whole film. It’s moments like those, the more dramatic and meaningful moments that take centre stage surprisingly in a film that’s about crime and gangsters, and are most enjoyable. The moments of action, chase, gun fire and danger, struggle to have any spark or fire to them, they’re presented as if from Joe’s view, ordinary and it misses a huge opportunity both in direction and cinematography to create memorable, fast paced or sharp edged scenes of criminal behaviour. Which is generally a theme for the film, visually for most of the running time it’s unimpressive, given its early 20th century setting is quite disappointing. Mention could also be made about the rather awful performance by Chris Messina as Joe’s right hand man Dion, he’s definitely put effort into the character but he comes across as much more inconsequential than a character of his involvement should be.
It’s the clichéd curse of a film not living up to the book, there just isn’t enough time to fit in all the detail and it’s always more difficult to make a connection between character and audience on the screen than on the page. Live by Night is not a bad film, it’s incredibly watchable and it is interesting, there’s a good story even if it’s been watered down and it’s certainly one of Elle Fanning’s best performances but it doesn’t quite reach being a memorable feature. Affleck had good intentions, he even performs fairly well himself, if being slightly too bulky for a man in the 1920’s who is unlikely to attend a gym once a day but the emotion, energy and style that he’s shown before with Argo and especially The Town, took a back seat with this one. When it comes down to it, it is still worth watching.