Review: Live By Night

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By Andrew Clarke (AwaitingAndrew)
 
Live By Night is directed by and stars Ben Affleck as a gangster in the Prohibition era, who goes from robbing banks to bootlegging to attempting to open a casino, all while others use various means try to thwart his illegal business attempts.
 
The first part of the film follows Affleck as a thrill-seeking, foolishly in love Joe Coughlin, who’s looking to make his mark amongst gangsters in Boston while robbing banks with two accomplices. It’s a rebellion of sorts against his upbringing, with his father a Boston police captain, portrayed by Brendan Gleeson (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire).
 
After events that I won’t spoil occur, Coughlin finds an opportunity to head south and lead the Ybor City, Florida, division of an Italian mob boss’s bootlegging venture. Here, the chief of police (Chris Cooper) is determined to look the other way and stay out of the business of gangsters as long as they operate within one district. We also meet his daughter, played by Elle Fanning (The Neon Demon) in a great performance, who is leaving for Hollywood but soon thereafter returns to preach against the illegal works of Coughlin and the mob.
 
Live By Night looks, for the most part, like a gangster film straight out of the 1930s or 40s. There are a large quantity of overhead setting the scene shots as well as slow zooms into a character’s face that are more from today’s directing style, but otherwise with the way it depicts the action and the bootlegging it might as well be a classic film. That’s a testament to the work Ben Affleck does in his return to the directors chair. I don’t think there’s been any debate in Affleck’s ability as a director since the last film he directed, Argo, won the Academy Award for Best Picture. This one will not do the same but in my opinion is almost as good.
 
Now Affleck’s film doesn’t really give audiences anything new, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Live By Night is never afraid to pull the punches, as characters are brutally shot to death, thrown off a building, or flipped over in a vehicle. Even once it feels like the violence has subsided, we’re reminded that a gangster can never escape that life once he’s begun.
 
On the other side of the camera, I wouldn’t call Ben Affleck’s role as Joe Coughlin his best acting work, but he does well in carrying this film from one setting to the next. He engages in two romantic relationships as the film progresses, and Affleck works to make both convincing on his end, though the first with Sienna Miller (American Sniper) is far more convincingly reciprocated than the latter with Zoe Saldana (Guardians of the Galaxy). Not unlike some great gangster flicks, these romances become the motivation for Joe Coughlin. He works to keep his risky businesses going, but he’s more interested with keeping the girl safe and out of harm’s way.
 
Chris Cooper (American Beauty) gives in my opinion by far the best performance of anyone in Live By Night. It’s a statement that, had I been told that before seeing a film directed by and starring Ben Affleck, would have surprised me. As the Tampa chief of police whose first and foremost concern is for his daughter, it’s an absolutely surreal performance. While you’re never fully sure that you should be rooting for Affleck’s Joe Coughlin, Chief Figgis is an insanely easy character to sympathize with thanks to the way Cooper depicts his trials and tribulations as the plot rages on.
 
Live By Night is the latest directorial effort from Ben Affleck, who also stars as gangster Joe Coughlin. It’s a film taking place during Prohibition that fits right in with the classic gangster flicks, both in style and in story. While that also means there’s not really anything new here, Live By Night is an entertaining film from start to finish.
 
I give Live By Night an 8.


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