Live by Night: A Prohibition Era Power-Fantasy

Live By Night

Dir.: Ben Affleck





Ben Affleck’s newest film, Live by Night, presents its narrative with sprawling confidence: a man comes home from war, lives a petty criminal life, goes to prison, and ultimately falls in with the Italian mafia in the throes of a revenge plot. While the premise sounds relatively pulpy compared to some other gangster films that have made greater ambitious attempts at profundity, Live by Night attempts to convey its own profundity singularly through Affleck, whose directing skills shining through yet again in another gorgeous-looking and meticulously designed film. Affleck romanticizes the Prohibition era gangster film genre quite well, with captivating characters, excellent gunfights, beautiful costuming, and a swagger that feels familiar to cinephiles who love the machinations of the cinematic mafia. While the film contains striking cinematography, gripping action set pieces, and a tendency to provide the most picturesque and well-lit cinematic canvas, it unfortuntely falters in Affleck’s own ambition. Though Live by Night is a well-crafted production from a technical standpoint, its central performance, dialogue, and narrative all seem to aim for the highest tentpoles of prestige filmmaking, only to miss the mark and land on the dartboard of mediocrity.

The main issue from a narrative standpoint that Live by Night suffers from is the dichotomy that Affleck tries to imbue in his protagonist: though he ultimately becomes a mob boss with incredible tactical skill and impressive strength, he remains a family man, with a heart of gold, a distaste for hypocrisy and prejudice, and an abhorrence for the profession that he excels in. This is not an unfamiliar concept in the genre, but Affleck attempts to imbue the narrative with extra subplots and too many characters, while simultaneously attempting to provide meticulous development for Joe Coughlin. Elle Fanning and Chris Cooper both provide excellent performances, as does a certain actor who plays a troublemaking KKK member, but almost all their scenes could have been removed from the film, and the plot would not have lost much.  Live by Night suffers from a serious lack of focused pacing, as the narrative starts and stops frequently, with some extremely slow moments where not a lot happens to progress Affleck’s mafia forward. At an approximately two-hour runtime, this film feels too long to work as a pulpy gangster action film, and too short to serve as a sprawling Scorsese-spawn mafia epic.

Nevertheless, when the film does feature scenes with action, such as a car chase scene early in the film and the few but visceral shootouts that do occur, the film does provide thrills. Affleck does a great job conveying the period by using authentic-looking vehicles, weaponry, and even hats and shoes of the time; where the film lacks in charm, it makes up for in style. The film struggles to keep narrative context going for the scenes that feel obligatory to show off the production value, but at least the costuming and the sets are all crisply designed and pristinely filmed. No expense was spared to immerse the viewer into the time period, and though the viewer may not necessarily care for the characters on screen or the different schemes that Affleck and company orchestrate, the film never ceases to provide at least a pretty, wide array of images.

Perhaps the most crucial flaw of the whole film is that Ben Affleck feels far too involved in the film for his character. He writes, directs and stars in the film, which only furthers the impact that the failure of providing context for all that Joe Coughlin’s bicameral nature brings. It borders on pretentious, and while it never quite becomes as wacky as a Tarantino film or as ironically sympathetic as a Scorsese film, it takes its narrative stone-faced seriously and ceases to have a sense of humor about its pulpiness. Affleck’s performance itself feels mostly wooden, as he solemnly intones his dialogue in hopes that you take it as profound, until you listen to the words coming out of his mouth. Other actors and actresses like Zoe Saldana, Brendan Gleeson and Siena Miller feel wasted--though their characters have personality and their performances are not bad, some of their scenes feel overly cartoonish. The fact that Ben Affleck serves as the focal point in every scene doesn’t help the narrative, considering he remains the least interesting character throughout the course of the film. Overall, Live by Night could have benefited simply from a different actor with a more nuanced performance for Joe Coughlin, as Affleck’s own ambitions and passions for this film ultimately cause its flaws.

Ultimately, Live by Night as a prohibition-era power fantasy for Affleck, as he joylessly portrays a stoic but boring individual who feels more obligatorily sympathetic than layered. His sprawling screenplay is ambitious, but it never provides a cohesive theme or adds up to much at the end of the film. Thankfully, its visuals, its set design, its good performances and its technical aspects redeem it from being a truly bad film. As it stands, Live by Night is a forgettable genre film, but it’s not necessarily an irredeemable one.