Live By Night – Review

Ben Affleck’s fourth directorial effort is an enjoyably pulpy, prohibition-era gangster tale.

Director: Ben Affleck
Starring: Ben Affleck, Zoe Saldana, Sienna Miller, Chris Cooper
Release Date:  13th January, 2017 (US/UK)
Studio: Warner Bros

“I don’t wanna be a gangster. Stopped kissing rings a long time ago.”

2016 was a strange year for Ben Affleck. He suffered one critical mauling after the next: first with starring roles in Batman v Superman The Accountant, and more recently with his return to the director’s chair in Live By Night. He went from golden boy to pariah, and we were all left wondering what had gone so wrong. Looking back, not a lot. Even if you weren’t enamoured with BvS, the popular opinion was that Affleck shone as the Caped Crusader. The Accountant, meanwhile, was far better received by general audiences than it was by the critical community. With Live By Night, he’s made it three-for-three.

This marks Affleck’s second adaptation of the work of Dennis Lehane. His first resulted in the fantastically broody, hard-hitting exploration of morality known as Gone Baby Gone (still his finest work). Live By Night strays from the grim, small-scale style and tone of Affleck’s debut, leaning more towards his work on The Town – with an added level of flair and exuberance. There’s nothing gritty about this. It’s lavish, loud and relies more on its entertainment value than it does on those dramatic notes.

And that’s okay. It’s a welcome dose of escapism, set in the ever-entertaining prohibition-era of America. The roaring twenties and dirty thirties are expertly realised by Affleck’s production crew, combining imposing sets with beautiful costumes. Robert Richardson’s cinematography lends a dreamy feel to the film, heavily focusing on sunset-lit scenes bathed in deep oranges and pinks. All of this takes away from the realism – replacing it with a charmingly pulpy element. And every shootout, stand-off and car chase sequence is as chaotic and rip-roaringly entertaining as you might expect.

“This is heaven. Right here. We’re in it now.”

And yet, none of the thrills would matter without some semblance of a meaningful story. The Town proved Affleck could skilfully weave emotional drama into an action-centric tale. Live By Night does it less effectively. Its ability to tell a cohesive narrative is undermined by the sheer number of characters it populates itself with – but that adds to its sprawling sense of scale. The cast of characters are a messy pastiche of twenties and thirties American stereotypes – from Irish/Italian mobsters to heroine addicts to corrupt cops to Klan members. What makes them work are the performances.

Affleck does a fine job in the lead, adding more charm as the film goes on. Chris Messina turns in an slightly comical yet endearing performance as his right-hand, while Sienna Miller manages to steal most of the scenes she’s in (complete with a deliciously hammy Irish accent). Brendan Gleeson is unsurprisingly great, but Zoe Saldana is undermined by the weak material her character is given.

Ultimately, the best work comes from two seemingly superfluous characters in Chris Cooper’s chief of police and his daughter, portrayed magnificently by Elle Fanning. Both possess great chemistry with Affleck – and the scenes they share with him are the indisputable high points of the film. Together, they make up the emotional backbone of the story where Affleck’s romantic entanglements fail to do so.

There are a few smaller issues to be found – most of which concern the film’s uneven structure and hit-and-miss first act – but the prevailing feeling you get from watching Ben Affleck’s latest is one of genuine enjoyment. Live By Night successfully overcomes a slow start and builds towards a mostly satisfying conclusion in a delightfully over-the-top fashion. Don’t believe the hype. Or do. I’m not the boss of you.

3.5 Stars

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