For his fourth outing as a director, Ben Affleck has aimed to make an ambitious, sprawling period gangster drama, but while the film is stylish and features a few decent set pieces, it ultimately feels as if it is missing some of the ingredients that can be found in the best mob pictures.
In the film, Affleck plays Joe Coughlin, the son of a Boston police captain who turns to crime, getting bounced back and forth between two mob families (an Irish gangster named Albert White and an Italian one known as Mr. Pescatore) before being sent by the latter to Florida, where he takes over a Tampa-based operation in which he works with a local Cuban gang.
But while Coughlin’s rise in the mob, as well as his clashes with the KKK in Florida, make up some of the film’s dramatic bits, there are also three women whose presences influence him. The first is Albert White’s girlfriend (Sienna Miller), with whom he has a dangerous liaison that nearly results in his death, while the second is the sister (Zoe Saldana) of a Cuban gangster in Tampa, and the third is the religious daughter (Elle Fanning) of a local police chief (Chris Cooper).
The film makes great use of its Florida locales and there are several set pieces in the film that are pretty impressive, most notably the raiding of a mansion by a group of thugs that slightly recalls the finale of Scarface, which was also set in Florida. And as he has shown with his other pictures like Gone Baby Gone, The Town and Argo, Affleck once again proves he has talent behind the camera. This film, although flawed, feels assured.
The problems with Live By Night mostly come via the script department. For starters, Coughlin is a bit of a cypher. He is an occasionally ruthless mob enforcer with ambitions of taking over Tampa’s crime scene, but we are simultaneously supposed to believe that he’s a decent guy at heart – take, for example, how he refuses to bump off a woman who is getting in the way of his creating a casino ordered by Pescatore.
And the film’s three women – Miller’s moll, Saldana’s romantic interest and Fanning’s naive religious convert – aren’t fully developed, but rather serve as symbols that further Coughlin’s story rather than their own. Spoiler alert: similarly, the deaths of two of them are used for Coughlin’s obligatory emotional arc.
Live By Night is a halfway decent gangster picture. Robert Richardson’s cinematography helps to create the vibe of a classic Hollywood picture, albeit one that is more colorful and lush than your typical noir. The film is a larger canvas than Affleck has tackled with his three previous films, so he earns points for ambition, but the movie never quite reaches its full potential.
Watch the Live By Night trailer below: