Ben Affleck/ USA/ 2016/ 129 mins
At cinemas nationwide now
The zippy, propulsive thrillers of Dennis Lehane have provided rich grist for the mills of respected directors for years now. Clint Eastwood (Mystic River) and Martin Scorsese (Shutter Island) have both adapted his work. Now Ben Affleck mines his pages for a second time after Gone Baby Gone in 2007. A prohibition-era gangster flick of rum and retribution, Live by Night sees Affleck himself playing Joe Coughlin, a freelance outlaw who falls in with local Italian mobsters after falling foul of the rival Irish gang boss.
In a stuffed narrative that sees Coughlin relocate from the internecine gang violence of 20’s Boston, to the sun-tickled suburbs of Tampa, Florida, Affleck tries to offer us an ostensibly noble man forced to do terrible things as he builds his illegal empire. He never quite convinces as this however. He is undoubtedly an assured director, yet Affleck here falls victim to his own impulses, and is clearly enjoying the meaty joys of the gangster trappings too much for Coughlin to come across as anything else but a thug with lofty pretensions. As such the film lacks a moral centre on which to cling as the centrifugal force of escalating violence becomes dizzying.
It’s not that there is something intrinsically wrong with a film stuffed with reprehensible characters, but Affleck aims for an ambiguity that just isn’t there. Any film based on Lehane’s work is never going to be devoid of watchable pulp action, and there is a real percussive weight to the flying bullets that adds a queasy edge to the slick violence, but that’s really all there is. Affleck never allows any languor into the lengthy run time, but it’s like a mouthful of cotton candy; it initially feels like a goodly morsel but evaporates to nothing as you try to chew on it. It feels like all the elements should be in place but they dissolve into ephemera.
Perhaps this is down to a curiously episodic structure. Coughlin negotiates with the local authorities in Tampa. The Ku Klux Klan starts attacking his clubs. An aspiring actress turned preacher puts plans for a new casino in jeopardy. These occur one after the other as a steady stream of flies in ointment. It’s easy to lose sight of the over-arching story when supporting players are brought in and shuffle off, while the real meat of the story and the catalyst for Coughlin’s vengeful designs are relegated to near irrelevance for large parts of the film.
Live by Night just about gets by on its style, brisk pace and some neat supporting turns from the likes of Brendan Gleeson and Zoe Saldana. It is ultimately something of a blot on Affleck’s copybook however, after the triumphant Oscar poacher that was Argo. He allows it to wallow in gangster cliches while pretending it’s all somewhat above such frippery. Perhaps another hand on the tiller may have reigned in its worst excesses.