Live By Night Looks Good, but Story Lags
- Christian Hamaker Contributing Film and Culture Writer
- 2017 12 Jan
The elements are all here for a successful period gangster drama - including Ben Affleck directing - but while the film never shoots blanks, Live By Night isn't ultimately satisfying. It's exciting around the edges but less interesting at the center. 3 out of 5.
Affleck's directorial follow-up to Best Picture winner Argo is a gangster drama with the usual ingredients: rival mobsters, personal betrayals, ill-advised romance and plenty of gunfire. Joe Coughlin (Affleck) used to be a straight arrow. The son of a Boston police deputy superintendent (Brendan Gleeson), he served in World War I but returned a broken man, claiming that "the rules we lived by were lies," and swearing to never follow orders again. A mob war over rum takes the story from Boston to Florida and pits Italian and Irish gangsters against each other, with Joe switching sides and incurring the consequences. He fools around with his boss's girlfriend (Sienna Miller) up north, then enlists with a rival gang in Florida, where he gets involved with a Cuban woman (Zoe Saldana), drawing the wrath of the KKK. A young woman's (Elle Fanning) religious awakening plays a key role in the story, but so does cynicism about faith.
Live By Night doesn't come together, but it's not a bust. The movie has several good scenes and performances, and it's lovely to look at—something we've come to expect from the work of cinematographer Robert Richardson (Hugo, JFK). Miller is a memorable femme fatale, Fanning is a believably damaged (albeit conniving) soul and Gleeson brings gravitas to his few scenes.
The supporting performers are more effective than Affleck in the lead role of Joe, which is the story's weak link. The treatment of faith, rooted in one character's physical and emotional damage, is built on deceit, making for a troubling portrayal of religion that nevertheless fits the film’s darker themes and mood.
Christian Worldview Elements / Spiritual Themes
A woman from the pulpit rails against sinfulness, singling out gambling. She says her good works are mitigated by others' evil deeds, and she insists that there's a correlation across sins. She believes everyone is going to hell, and that life here on earth is heaven (this idea is repeated later by another character). She says she doesn't know if there is a God, but she hopes there is, and that He's good. Catholics are singled out for attempting to sell liquor. A gunman shouts, "Repent!" as he fires into a residential home where an interracial couple resides.
CAUTIONS (may contain spoilers)
- MPAA Rating: R for strong violence, language throughout, and some sexuality/nudity
- Language/Profanity: Lord’s name taken in vain; numerous uses of the F-word; "a-sh-le"; racial epithets.
- Sexuality/Nudity: Two people kiss passionately and are then shown in bed from the neck up; a subsequent sex scene shows a bare upper back; nude photos of a woman; a man is said to have touched his daughter the way he used to touch his wife.
- Violence/Frightening/Intense: Dead soldiers pictured; a disillusioned Joe says he came back from combat determined to never follow rules again; several shootings at point-blank range; a man is thrown off a building; a woman stabs a man; an explosion; a gang war involves hits on men from rival gangs; a bank robbery; shootouts; KKK violence; a father whips his daughter; a woman is said to have cut her own throat; a dead body is shown, with blood pooling under the man's head; a threat to reveal a homosexual relationship.
Drugs/Alcohol: The Prohibition-era story involves a war over rum; smoking; two men share "near beer"; a woman is said to be a heroin addict.
The Bottom Line
RECOMMENDED FOR: While gangster movie fans got their 1980s-era fix last year with The Infiltrator, Live By Night is for those who enjoy earlier-period stories about America’s checkered history.
NOT RECOMMENDED FOR: The target audience here is hard to define. It's not exactly a date-night movie; it's not action-heavy enough for those who like gunfights; and it's not romantic enough for those looking for a satisfying love story. The movie offers just enough to hold the interest of each of those audiences, but not enough of any of those elements to be entirely satisfying.
Live by Night, directed by Ben Affleck, opened wide in theaters January 13, 2017; available for home viewing March 21, 2017. It runs 128 minutes and stars Ben Affleck, Brendan Gleeson, Zoe Saldana, Elle Fanning, Remo Girone and Sienna Miller. Watch the trailer for Live by Night here.
Christian Hamaker brings a background in both Religion (M.A., Reformed Theological Seminary) and Film/Popular Culture (B.A., Virginia Tech) to his reviews. He still has a collection of more than 100 laserdiscs, and for DVDs patronizes the local library. Streaming? What is this "streaming" of which you speak? He'll figure it out someday. Until then, his preferred viewing venue is a movie theater. Christian is happily married to Sarah, a parent coach and author of Hired@Home and Ending Sibling Rivalry.
Publication date: January 12, 2017