Live by Night review: “there’s rarely a dull moment”

Ben Affleck goes from good guy to gangster in a classy period piece that skims the surface of emotion but delivers action aplenty

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★★★

Men in fedoras with slick suits and shiny hair, running rum and dodging hails of bullets – Ben Affleck welcomes you to the glamorous underworld of Prohibition-era America in Live by Night. 

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Adapting the novel by Dennis Lehane (Mystic River, Shutter Island), he keeps a steady hand behind the camera as writer/director, while, in front of it, he deftly evokes trouble beneath still waters as on-the-up gangster Joe Coughlin, a man described by Chris Cooper’s beleaguered Tampa sheriff as “once, good”.  

Having already opened to a lukewarm reception on home shores, Live by Night won’t rank among Affleck’s best directorial work, including the Oscar-winning Argo and his earlier films Gone Baby Gone (also based on a Lehane novel) and The Town. That may be because, while he handles a sprawling plot with elegance and alacrity, the passion that defines and drives Joe Coughlin – and in turn, the story – is buried too far beneath its structure.

In laconic voiceover, Joe reveals how the First World War turned him against authority and into an armed robber, while the burning love he feels for Sienna Miller’s hard-nosed moll, Emma, gets him into strife with his cop father (Brendan Gleeson) and her kingpin lover Albert White (a rodent-like Robert Glenister). He could wind up dead, but instead does a spell in the slammer after a botched stick-up (the car chase is breathlessly shot), and with reports that Emma is sleeping with the fishes, he aims to take his revenge on White.

If only Emma was as alluringly enigmatic on film as she is in the novel, you may not feel that Joe was wasting his energy. 

The vengeance Joe takes is more elaborately drawn, with him agreeing to work for the Italian Mob down in Tampa, Florida, importing rum from Cuba to corner the market and hit White where it hurts. His right-hand man is played by Chris Messina (sporting alarming buck teeth) but his real partner in crime is Zoe Saldana’s Graciela, who gives the film added pulse. 

Graciela controls an essential shipping route with her brother, but before long she and Joe mixing business with pleasure. Inevitably, Graciela starts talking about getting out of “the life”, but it’s complicated. Even more tragically, those complications overtake the character study at the heart of the film; that friction between the hopeless romantic and the emerging tough guy. Joe assures Graciela in one scene that revenge no longer interests him, only building a future with her. But that’s not the feeling you get as you watch the bodies stack up and his dream to create the first legalised casino takes hold.

Motivations get muddied and Joe gets his hands very dirty, although Affleck imbues the character with enough humanity that the pain of his spiritual demise is palpably clear. In a quietly played role, Cooper’s pragmatic Chief Figgis offers him a sharp reflection of the man he once was and has become, and that makes it even harder when he is required to deal with Figgis’s loose-cannon brother-in-law (Matthew Maher) and wayward daughter (a poignant Elle Fanning).

While the action has plenty of visceral punch, it dampens the emotional impact of Joe’s soul-searching. Without that depth, the film doesn’t quite live up to its epic scope. 

Still, Affleck has delivered another accomplished bit of film-making. Apart from looking great and keeping a brisk pace, he shows his cast (and not just himself) in the best light, knowing when to linger on a close-up or cut to the chase. Because Miller gets shortest shrift, she benefits the most, hinting at what her true feelings about Joe might be. In a world where Joe must always look over his shoulder, even under the blazing sun, such doubts breed peril and intrigue. 

There is rarely a dull moment, but if Affleck had thrown more light on the darkest corners of Joe’s mind, Live by Night could have been a classic.

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Live by Night is released in cinemas on Friday 13 January


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