I finally got around to watching Ben Affleck’s late 2016 release, Live by Night. Ben Affleck adapted the screenplay, directed and stars in this film. His character, Joe Coughlin has returned to Boston after serving in World War I, but he has come home disillusioned by the blind pursuit of orders. In Boston the Irish mob and Italian mob are at war, and Joe gets caught in the middle when he falls in love with the Irish bosses’ girl.
After falling into some bad choices and timing, Joe agrees to go down to Florida to destroy the Irish mob’s holdings there. He quickly asserts his position there and builds his own small empire, gaining the respect of those he works with. He encounters a culture clash and finds himself fighting the KKK and the strong religious beliefs down there.
Going into it, I knew the reviews were mediocre at best, so when the movie opened with narration, a bland explanation of a character and a cliche romance story line, I thought I was going to have to turn my brain off and take it at face value. I was wrong.
The first thing I saw, even in the middle of being thrown into all the opening exposition, this film looks amazing. Two things. The camera work is stunning. I was blown away as the camera swung around cars during a police chase, and the camera just continued to stay alive throughout the film. The second piece was the colours in the film. I was able to forgive the on the nose narration because you could feel it was going for an homage to classic noirs. A big part in seeing this was how consistently muted the colours were. It felt black and white without being black and white. This is because the film draws heavily on strong grays and oranges, making it feel of the times.
The opening clips along at a fine pace, but I couldn’t get invested because of the points I made earlier, but that all changed when the story moved to Florida. The movie really opens up the characters, and the movie is now about Joe and how he handles his relationships with the people of Florida. This improves the film phenomenally, and I could see the Goodfellas/Casino vibe that Ben Affleck had built. I could get behind the film for its elements of a character study and sprawling time capsule. The ending was a little disappointing but tied in well with the poetic elements of the film.
A big part of the surge in the post Boston portion of the story came from the consistently strong performances of the supporting cast. Chris Messina and Zoe Saldana gave strong anchors for Ben Affleck to play off as his partner and lover respectively. Matthew Maher was diabolical as a racist villain. Lastly Chris Cooper and Elle Fanning were spot on as they played a father and daughter with opposing ideals to Joe’s.
All in all. I was surprised and pleased by the film. The opening is very bland but quick to get through, and the rest of the film is a solid character study. I hold it in the veins of Casino and Goodfellas and would suggest it for people looking for a crime film that is more character piece than a film about one particular heist or criminal endeavor.