Wednesday 11 December 2019

Film review: Live By Night - A decent noir caper lurks not far beneath the surface

Retro: upcoming Ben Affleck movie Live By Night was inspired by the actor’s love of classic gangster films
Retro: upcoming Ben Affleck movie Live By Night was inspired by the actor’s love of classic gangster films

Ed Power

A decent noir caper lurks not far beneath the surface of Live By Night, Ben Affleck’s fourth outing as director and first since winning an Oscar for Argo.

There’s a promising set-up with Affleck, who also stars and wrote the screenplay (we understand he made the tea on set too), as small -time Boston-Irish mobster Joe Coughlin (the second name hilariously pronounced as "cof-lin").

A tryst with a godfather’s moll – Sienna Miller, cod-Tipperary accent straying towards Punch-magazine offensive –  brings down the wrath of said gangster (Robert Glenister, with a decent Dublin burr). Also raining on Joe’s day is his terribly disappointed policeman dad, a laying-it-on-thicker-than-he-needs-to Brendan Gleeson.

Yet as with so much else in this $64 million adaptation of Denis Lehane’s novel, Joe’s conflict with his pater is presented as merely a perfunctory plot point.

Following a botched bank job, the loveable underdog is sent to jail and emerges with a glinting determination to succeed in organised crime (previously he had stuck to the noble art of bank robbery and petty theft).

That his dad has passed away in the interim is mentioned only in passing, while Miller is treated to a similarly hasty exit.

This is the point at which Live By Night comes undone in earnest. Affleck plays Joe as a stand-up dude, with morals as straight as his jawline.

He commits horrific crimes – kills, extorts, imitates Miller's nails-on-blackboard Irish accent – yet is nonetheless presented as a good guy. Affleck wears blinding white suits throughout and is frequently shot in golden light, the movie all but holding a flashing sign reading “misunderstood hero” over his head.

The actor has, since emerging from his J-Lo sin bin, reached a sturdy competence behind the camera. Affleck will never be mistaken for a master craftsman but his films have a teak-solid quality.

On screen, he can be charmless and glib. However, Gone Baby Gone, The Town and Argo shared a scrappy likeability. He’s had to work hard at being a good-to-excellent director and this scuffled charm wins you over.

With Live By Night, though, he has bitten off too much. The film is, in its initial stages at least, undeniably handsome (for which credit must go to Coen brothers regular production designer Jess Gonchor).

However once Joe moves south to Tampa with dreams of conquering the rum smuggling business, the period sparkle dims. Affleck is apparently far less interested in meticulosity recreating Twenties Florida than in applying a jazz era lustre to his home town of Boston.

Here, also, Live By Night awkwardly morphs into a civil rights romance, as Joe falls for Zoe Saldana's Cuban rum-runner, Graciella, and is targeted by the Ku Klux Klan. Adding to the excess of plot is Elle Fanning as the daughter of the local sheriff, her dreams of Hollywood stardom soon to spiral into vice and drugs.

Throughout, Affleck's performance is at odds with the movie Live By Night clearly needs to be. It's as if Pacino had played Scarface as a loveable dork or if Walter White was pitched as a misunderstood moral crusader. Not only does Live By Night insist nice guys deserve to finish first – it also tells us it’s okay if they do terrible things along the way.

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