What happened, Affleck? What do Gone Baby Gone, The Town and Argo all have in common? They’re all fantastic, and they’re all directed by Ben Affleck. So you could probably be forgiven for expecting that his latest effort – period gangster movie Live By Night – would fit into the same category. You would, however, be incorrect. I’d hesitate to call it bad, but there’s no hesitation at all in calling it bland.
All of the ingredients are there for a hard-hitting, emotionally wrought tale of love, death and revenge, they’re simply not utilised as well as you’d hope. The backdrop to the story is the most successfully realised aspect, 1920s and ’30s prohibition America, from the bustling city of Boston to the humid swamplands of Tampa, there’s glamour and style to spare in the costumes, production design and cinematography. Visually, the period is portrayed impressively, but the significance of this point in history, so ripe for exploring, is given short shrift. It was a time troubled by violence, crime and racism, with the world on the brink of war. And while these elements are touched upon, they’re not afforded anything more than a cursory glance at best.
Instead we spend the film skimming the surface of lead character Joe Coughlin’s (Ben Affleck) trials and tribulations. The set up is simple enough; Joe falls in love with the wrong woman, Sienna Miller’s Emma Gould, engaging in a relationship that can only possibly end badly. Because she’s also a mistress to Albert White (Robert Glenister), a powerful Irish mobster. Though Joe may be a crook and a scoundrel, the life of a gangster isn’t what he wants. And he manages to avoid it, that is until his failure to fall in line leads to the truth of his relationship with Emma being revealed, and her being lost to him forever at the hands of White. And so he forms an alliance with White’s Italian criminal rival Maso (Remo Girone), and heads to Tampa to run an illegal rum operation in direct competition with White’s own empire.
But rather than the film becoming the cat and mouse revenge story with Joe and White duking it out that it seems to be heading for, that whole thread is moved to the side more or less completely until the climax. It becomes a talky take on the prohibition era, with a second love interest thrown in for good measure. It’s an odd scripting choice from Affleck (who is on writing duties as well), leaving Joe and White’s eventual face-off feeling like an afterthought. That particular encounter not being helped by a questionable revelation. It’s all just rather understated. From the entire midsection, to the central performances, including that of the usually excellent Affleck, it’s lacking energy and focus throughout.
There’s a smartly choreographed shootout towards the end of Live By Night. It’s one of the very few moments where what is a film about gangsters actually allows its characters to be gangsters. Where it lets off the reins, and for a fleeting moment all hell breaks loose and bullets fly. An energetic burst that comes out of nowhere. A couple more of those and it might have been a touch more exciting.
Rating (out of 5):