Live by Night
As director and lead actor, Ben Affleck is keen to remind us Live by Night is an homage to gangster films of the 30s and 40s. Dennis Lehane, author of the eponymous novel on which the movie is based, described the book as a love letter to cinematic gangster glam and an exploration of the American Dream, karmic justice and social dynamics.
On the surface, the film fleshes out those elements well. The cinematography consists of many wide shots, reminiscent of the genre. The costumes and sets are immaculately designed and painstakingly replicate the style and atmosphere of Prohibition Era Ybor City. The supporting cast (Zoe Saldana, Elle Fanning, Chris Cooper) give strong performances and highlight the complex social and ethnic tapestry of 1920s Florida.
Affleck plays Joe Coughlin, a First World War veteran and son of a Boston police officer (Brendan Gleeson). An inherently good but violent man, Coughlin defines his own moral compass and lives by his own rules as an outlaw, embroiling himself in organised crime in Prohibition Era America. Having raised the ire of a prominent criminal associate through an illicit affair, the gangster moves to Ybor City, Florida, ascending to the top of the lucrative rum bootlegging trade whilst seeking vengeance against his enemies.
Despite Affleck’s attempts to portray Coughlin’s inner turmoil between his own cruelty and kindness, the resulting effect falls flat. He is written as a perfectly good man – who just happens to shoot people in the back of the head to advance commercial interests. Coughlin is brutal, but the audience is expected to believe he’s fair minded and kind with nothing to bridge the two extreme traits. To top this off, the man is portrayed as a progressive darling, associating with Afro-Cubans and Italians, despite the ultra-conservatism of the time.
The overtones of the era’s ultra-white conservatism are distinctly clunky, with historic references clumsily shoehorned into the main narrative. The unsubtle period references and cartoonish portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan, and one laughably explicit reference to Adolf Hitler, amounts to the movie pointedly saying, “Yes, we are definitely in the past”.
The strict adherence to the “Joe is a good man” theme, despite the contradictory violence of his profession, means Live by Night never seriously examines the protagonist’s motives in detail. As such, whilst there are some good performances from the supporting cast and a few poignant moments, the film lacks the coherency and fluidity Affleck has demonstrated in his other features.
Live by Night is released nationwide on 13th January 2017.
Watch the trailer for Live by Night here: