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Live By Night
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by Peter Sobczynski

"A.K.A. The Snoring Twenties"
2 stars

Although it still seems like an odd thing to note, it must be said that over the course of his first three films behind the camera, Ben Affleck has established himself as a surprisingly strong and gifted director. Granted, those films—“Gone Baby Gone,” “The Town” and “Argo”—have not necessarily reinvented the cinematic wheel for the most part, he has proven himself to be a filmmaker in the manner of the late Sydney Pollack—someone with the ability to put together intelligent, adult-oriented projects like “Three Days of the Condor” and “Tootsie” that featured smart storytelling instincts and a genuine facility for working with actors. Unfortunately, with his latest effort, an adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s period gangster drama “Live By Night,” he seems to be emulating the Pollack who coughed up such high-toned dogs as “Bobby Deerfield,” “Havana” and “Random Hearts” that brought together a number of hugely talented people on both sides of the camera in the service of substandard screenplays that not even their talents could elevate. On paper, it seems to have everything going for it but the end result is such a dead bulb of a movie that it feels like the work of a first-time director with no particular aptitude for the job rather than the latest from a guy whose previous effort won the Oscar for Best Picture.

Affleck stars as Joe Coughlin, the son of a top Boston cop (Brendan Gleeson) whose experiences in World War I have left him with no desire to ever again play by the rules or take orders from anyone. Though the streets are ruled by the crews belonging to two rival gangsters—Irishman Albert White (Robert Glenister) and Italian Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone)—Joe prefers working for himself doing occasional stick-ups of banks and mob-controlled poker games. In his free time, Joe whiles away the hours carrying on with Albert’s mistress, Emma (Sienna Miller), in the least clandestine manner imaginable. Things come to a head for Joe when a bank robbery goes south and a couple of cops die in the process and Albert discovers his relationship with Emma. Though Albert is prevented from killing Joe outright, he leaves him for the cops to nab and while spiriting Emma away, the car she is in plunges into the water and she is presumed dead.

With the help of his father, Joe gets only three years in prison and when he is released, he is consumed with a desire to avenge himself and Emma by killing Albert. To do so, he decides to throw in with Maso, whose power has increased rapidly in the interim. Maso sends him to the predominantly Latin section of Tampa, Florida to run the rum-running business that has been cutting into Albert’s share of the trade there. Joe proves to be a surprisingly progressive gangster by embracing the local Cuban community, especially Graciela (Zoe Saldana), the sister of the area’s primary molasses supplier. As his power and influence grows, he begins to run afoul of the outwardly pious local sheriff (Chris Cooper) that he has made amicable arrangements with in the past on two fronts. On one, the sheriff’s racist brother-in-law () begins violently attacking Joe’s clubs and will only stop in exchange for 60% of the take. On the other, the sheriff’s daughter, Loretta (Elle Fanning), following a sojourn to Hollywood that goes horribly wrong, returns to Tampa and becomes an evangelist preaching against sin in general and the casino that Joe is trying to build for Maso in particular. How Joe deals with both of them winds up having severe repercussions on both Joe’s business and his attempts to carve out a life for himself with Graciela that, perhaps inevitably, can only be resolved with numerous hails of gunfire and shocking plot twists and personal betrayals.

Needless to say, there are a lot of plot threads on display in “Live by Night” but the problem is that they never develop into anything other than bits of business that dominate the screen for a few minutes before disappearing from view. While watching it, I began to get the feeling that Affleck, who also wrote the screenplay, had originally intended to make a much longer film that would give the various developments time to breathe and when the decision was made to put it out at a more conventional length (a still-generous 2+ hours), he decided to include bits and pieces of everything instead of simply streamlining the material into a more manageable narrative. Then again, the fault may also lie with the source material since Lehane’s books have also featured convoluted plots and twists that strain the bounds of credulity. However, the best films to come from those books (including “Shutter Island” and Affleck’s own “Gone Baby Gone”) were made with such skill that the occasional ludicrousness of the material could be easily overlooked. Here, since there is no central story to hold on to or any interesting characters to follow, the narrative flaws stand out like sore thumbs.

The performances are also kind of disappointing. Although he usually doesn’t get enough credit for his skills as an actor, Affleck is not very good here in a role for which he is woefully miscast—he is way too old for the part, he rarely gets a chance to demonstrate his considerable onscreen charm and he is not believable for a second as a gangster who can be ruthless and brutal at one moment and philosophical the next (as during a weird moment when he stops the action to explain at length about how Prohibition contributed to the enormity of the Great Depression). Likewise, Elle Fanning is as good of a young actress as there is working today but you wouldn’t know that from her one-note performance as the would-be starlet-turned-evangelist. (To be fair to her, the character is so oddly conceived that it is hard to think of anyone who could have possibly made it work.) Of the others, Saldana is wasted in a nothing role that starts out interesting only to devolve into just another worried girlfriend, strong performers like Miler and Gleeson are stuck playing walking cliches and Chris Cooper essentially plays the exact same part that he did in “American Beauty” and it doesn’t work any better here than it did there. The only notable performance comes from Chris Messina, who actually does make a good impression as Affleck’s loyal right-hand man by injecting some much-needed levity to the proceedings—the scene in which he inadvertently shoots Affleck during an ambush and tries to explain it away is perhaps the only one in the film that has the feeling of real life to it.

From a production standpoint, “Live by Night” is undeniably impressive—thanks to the stylish art direction and production design and lovely cinematography from Robert Richardson, it is as handsomely mounted as anything to come around in a while. Alas, without a compelling story or interesting characters, the film just becomes a series of pretty (and occasionally blood-soaked) pictures with nothing of consequence happening in them. For Affleck, it proves that while he has proven that he does have what it takes to make it as a director, he as yet is unable to make weak material work just on sheer style alone. “Live by Night” is undeniably ambitious and in every scene, you can practically feel it straining to become a classic of the genre but in the end, it feels more like “Miller’s Crossing” cosplay than anything else.

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originally posted: 01/13/17 10:46:53
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  25-Dec-2016 (R)
  DVD: 21-Mar-2017

  13-Jan-2017 (15)

  25-Dec-2016 (MA)
  DVD: 21-Mar-2017

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