Writer: Ben Affleck (screenplay), Dennis Lehane (novel)
Cast: Ben Affleck, Zoe Saldana, Brendan Gleeson, Robert Glenister, Elle Fanning, Sienna Miller, Remo Girone, Chris Cooper, Chris Messina
Running time: 128mins
What’s the story: Against the backdrop of Prohibition Boston and Florida, Irish First World War veteran turned small-time crook Joe Coughlin finds himself working for the Italian mob during the liquor wars.
What’s the verdict: Ben Affleck returns to the work of Dennis Lehane for his latest delve into the life on the other side of the law. His directorial debut Gone Baby Gone, based on Lehane’s book of the same name, drew critical gushes. Live By Night is attracting as much fire as lead character Joe Coughlin.
Which is surprising. This may be Affleck’s most traditional of the four crime movies he has directed to date (Argo was a confidence trick caper don’t forget), but it is a perfectly enjoyable, expansive tale of East Coast bootlegging, boasting settings and characters not typically associated with tommy guns n’ fedora flicks.
Affleck sports his intimidating, broad-shouldered Batman physique, glowing with movie star charisma as Coughlin, a World War 1 veteran now doing petty stick up jobs to the chagrin of his high-ranking policeman dad (Gleeson).
While Coughlin is content with bank jobs and heisting card games, Boston is the battlefield between Italian mobsters headed by Maso Pescatore (Girone) and an Irish gang led by Albert White (Robert Glenister).
When someone close to Coughlin is caught up in strife with White, Joe enters the employ of Pescatore to plot revenge, finding himself headed for Florida to run things down there. Which brings new temptations and fresh dangers and violence.
With a story as old as the talkies themselves, Live By Night has the polished feel of homage. Affleck’s Coughlin is the good guy trying to stay straight in a corrupt world, inching ever closer to those he hates. There are double-crossers, chiselers and rogue guns who threaten the stability of the business and risk the ire of the bosses up in Boston. Not one but two molls enter Coughlin’s orbit, self-confessed good time girl Emma (Miller) and Cuban bootlegger Graciela (Saldana).
Affleck clearly has an affection for the period and the fashions, and legendary cinematographer Robert Richardson shoots with a velvet richness coupled with deep, dark shadows that recalls Gordon Willis’ work on The Godfather.
The director’s time with Zack Snyder has not blunted his ability to shoot action. A bank job and subsequent police pursuit takes The Town’s sensational central heist scene and relocates it to the 1920s. Frequent shoot-outs and stand-offs are effortlessly mined for tension, Affleck a seasoned pro at all this by now.
Lifting the film above genre deja-vu is the second half Florida setting, with its rainbow coalition of various gangs and booze runners, racial tensions, and Ku Klux Klan bad guys. Plus, an interesting side plot involving Pentecostal evangelism, Elle Fanning a martyred preacher with whom Coughlin reluctantly finds himself at odds.
With all this going on there is clearly a longer cut from which this two-hour movie was pruned. Saldana is established as a central character but ultimately sidelined and Titus Welliver is credited by blink and you’ll miss him. Plus, although he commits violence, there is never the feeling Coughlin is being brutalised by his actions; he is positively pacifist compared to his enemies.
The director’s cut of The Town was baggy and superfluous. But, a longer stay in this world may be no bad thing. Until then, be surprised by an underrated, hugely enjoyable crime caper from one of the most reliable directors currently calling the shots.
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