During the prohibition era, the son (Ben Affleck) of a decorated cop (Brendan Gleeson) turns to crime after fighting in the war. Fueled by revenge, he works for a high level mob boss (Remo Girone) running his racket in South Florida, and pitting him against their chief rival (Robert Glenister).
This may be Ben Affleck’s worst directorial effort, but his streak continues. It’s always hard following up a Best Picture winner. How much better can you really get? Ben Affleck’s weakest helmed film is still better than most movies we see in a calendar year. Live by Night is a damn good movie. Ben Affleck’s talent as a director is so good, this almost looks like a workmanlike effort. He makes it look easy. There isn’t anything supremely wrong this movie. It’s well written. Well edited. It’s solid across the board. It’s just missing that extra oomph that his first three films had. While it doesn’t transcend into greatness, this is a worthwhile crime epic that is absolutely worth your time.
The first ten minutes worried me a little. It was very cliché with a hackneyed narration by Affleck, who didn’t really seem into it. As an actor, he was also going through the motions. Affleck plays Joe Coughlin, a man disillusioned from fighting in the Great War, so he takes to being an outlaw in Boston robbing banks. There wasn’t a whole lot to this character in the beginning. It doesn’t take long though for the rum to hit the fan. Once the plot kicks into gear, we’re off and running. We fall into a well-structured crime story, and most importantly, Affleck’s character develops a personality.
While Affleck can practically direct a good movie in his sleep, the same can be said for him as a leading man. Joe is a no non-sense, smart aleck criminal. He’s always in control and five steps ahead of everybody. While a little underwritten, Affleck brings a lot out of this character. While his arc is a little murky, it was entertaining to watch Joe solve all the problems that kept cropping up. The real strength of the film are the conflicts and the supporting characters who serve their purpose well. Nobody is wasted.
Chris Messina plays Dion Bartolo, Joe’s right hand man. He’s the perfect sidekick for Affleck, and the two have a great bromance. The two rival crime bosses Joe gets entangled with are also compelling. You don’t see a ton of them, but their presence is always felt throughout the movie. Robert Glenister in particular is scene stealing, just by his mere look. Seriously dude, go see a dentist. Matthew Maher plays a KKK leader who’s a massive nuisance for Joe. This character was entertaining just because of how dumb he is. You know he’s going to get his comeuppance, and it’s extremely satisfying when he does. Maher plays this character perfectly. Zoe Saldana is Joe’s eventual love interest. Saldana is always strong, but her character is a bit of a hypocrite. She lectures Joe on his criminal activities, yet she’s just as involved in his illegal affairs as he is. That’s a bit of lazy writing (Affleck also serves as screenwriter).
The strongest role players in the film are Chris Cooper and Elle Fanning. Cooper plays the Sheriff in Florida who reluctantly works with Joe, and Fanning his daughter (what a year for Elle Fanning). Their role in the story is woven into the film beautifully, especially Fanning’s character. You don’t see that type of conflict in a crime movie, so I commend Affleck for adding something truly original to this genre. That’s not easy to do. They have some of the best scenes with Affleck. I was a little fearful the ending was going to wrap up too neatly, but their presence at the end of the film puts a nice exclamation point to the entire movie.
If you’re a fan of crime films, this won’t be your favorite, but you’ll eat it up. In the hands of a lesser director, this could have been Public Enemies (ugh), but Affleck is too talented to let that happen. While it doesn’t grab you like Argo or The Town, this is still a strong effort. It’s a little generic here and there, especially the score, but the dialogue is solid all around. For Affleck’s next film, maybe we can move it out of Massachusetts though. There’s one scene where Affleck basically says, “I drove down to North Redding then got a bagel in Somerville, and I’ll just throw in saying Dorchester just because.” Okay, we get it. You grew up in Massachusetts. Seriously, enough with the Boston-isms. It’s becoming wicked irritating.