Directed by Ben Affleck
Produced by Leonardo DiCaprio, Ben Affleck,
Jennifer Todd, Jennifer Davisson,
Screenplay by Ben Affleck
Based on Live by Night by Dennis Lehane
Starring Ben Affleck, Elle Fanning,
Brendan Gleeson, Chris Messina,
Sienna Miller, Zoe Saldana, Chris Cooper
In the days of Waze and Google Maps, it is always a surprise to find yourself held up during what should have been a quick trip from A to B.
Everything looked clear and straightforward when setting out, but suddenly the line on your GPS turns from green to red, the arrival time starts to creep up, and you find yourself crawling at a snail’s pace towards your destination.
The same interminable dragging plagues Live by Night, which languishes between shootouts due to a combination of slow pacing and safe choices that do nothing to push the story in a more dynamic direction.
The original novel, written by Daniel Lehane and adapted by Ben Affleck (who also produces, directs, and stars in the film) follows the life of reluctant mobster Joe Coughlin. As he moves deeper and deeper into the Prohibition Era crime world, the price of his lifestyle becomes higher and higher.
The movie starts in Boston, with Coughlin (Affleck) aligned with neither of the major ruling parties (Irish and Italian). Staying above the fray can only last so long, and he is soon recruited by his kinfolk to work for the Irish mob. This gives less than favorable outcomes and a vengeful Coughlin pivots to the Italians, leading their takeover of the bootlegging market in Florida.
Affleck did not take any chances with this screenplay and treats it with kid gloves when the film would have benefitted from heavier editing of several plots and more aggressive pacing. The sprawling multi-location storylines read more like individual chapters than seamless cinema, with what you’d imagine to be the last line on a page clearly emphasized as such.
The potential Live by Night had is constant, which may explain the heightened sense of disappointment. From the jump Ben Affleck has given us a beautiful film. The costuming and sets are rich with period details and establishing shots glide through appealing Floridian waterfront landscapes. The cinematography is nothing short of masterful. In many scenes the banter is clever and almost every sly joke lands perfectly. But there is simply too much of all of it, and a pervasive heaviness does nothing to help the time go by.
As a director he is able to get stirring performances from an already strong cast. Chris Messina, who gained 40 pounds for this role, is charmingly deplorable as sidekick Dion. His loud, greasy nature is a perfect foil to Coughlin’s cool charm and poise. Zoe Saldana is stunning as Graciela, the Afro-Cuban business partner turned love interest for Coughlin. She carries herself with a fierce sultry grace that draws the eye, but the softness in her intimate home life scenes show a lifestyle that could be, if only their gains had been through legal means. Coming out of a relatively quiet year, Elle Fanning gives one of the most memorable performances of the movie. She has always had a strong presence, but in this role Fanning emanates a preternatural focus that haunts her scenes. Sienna Miller and Chris Cooper are also joys to watch in their supporting parts. Ben Affleck plays his part convincingly enough as to not detract from the movie (unless he is attempting a Boston accent), but seems striving to achieve rather than excel.
As dizzying as the many threads are that make up the film, for the most part they are cohesive and you can see why Affleck was hesitant to remove them. Standing alone, the movie would not hurt from losing a storyline or two (or four), but perhaps it would not reflect Lehane’s novel as faithfully as Affleck has clearly set out to do. If you have the time and do not mind a particularly scenic route on the way to an end you may already know, Live by Night will reward you with a few engaging stops along the way.