By Preston Wilder
“I believe in America,” declared Signor Bonasera in The Godfather, but Live by Night – another film that delights in tense negotiations and smooth middle-aged men making veiled threats – isn’t so sure about America. Ben Affleck is Joe Coughlin, an obvious Irishman, whose friendship with a couple of “wops” (they rob banks together) raises eyebrows in 1920s Boston. America is a tapestry of assorted tribes in this movie, also including Cubans, beefy Southerners, the KKK, plus a wealthy WASP who wrecks our hero’s plans with a wave of his hand, making the theme explicit: “We are the landed white gentry of this country”.
America, in short, is a racket where immigrants get the short end of the stick, making Joe’s life of crime merely a reflection of larger crimes. That’s the general thrust of Live by Night, a grand statement which probably needed a broader canvas (like the 400-page Dennis Lehane novel on which the film is based) to do it justice. Those banks in Boston are only the beginning; the script moves through love, betrayal, near-certain death and a prison stint to an entirely new second half in Florida, which is where the KKK come in – followed, almost at the end, by Elle Fanning as a wannabe starlet turned Christian-fundamentalist preacher. Fanning is second-billed, though she barely appears till the film is two-thirds over – a sign of the underlying problem with this opulent crime drama, the fourth film directed by Affleck after Gone Baby Gone, The Town and Argo: it’s too bitty.
The film is best appreciated as a loose framework on which to hang memorable moments and performances – chief among the latter being Brendan Gleeson as Joe’s dad, a veteran cop dripping weary disdain. “I have no illusions. I’m a practical man,” he purrs in one of the aforementioned tense negotiation scenes, readying the dirty trick with which he hopes to save his son. Gleeson is florid in his speech, ditto Chris Cooper as a sad-eyed sheriff in the Florida half, proclaiming himself a lone beacon of integrity in this “fallen world”. The film is florid in general, with a voice-over tending to the wordy and portentous: “It’s not enough to break the rules. You have to be strong enough to make your own,” it intones, Joe’s philosophy being that rules are for suckers and none of us are our brother’s keeper. No man should run another’s life.
This is solid neo-noir stuff, down to the moody existentialism. It’s a violent world, with some nasty beatings and killings. It’s also a man’s world. Men notoriously tend to reduce women to opposing stereotypes, the Madonna and the whore – but the two female roles here are quite literally a Madonna (Fanning) and a whore (Zoe Saldana, rescued from the life by our hero). Admittedly there’s another female role, a tragic reminder of Boston, kept in reserve for what, in the book, must’ve been a powerhouse scene – but there aren’t any powerhouse scenes here, simply because the film lacks momentum. The elements don’t coalesce. Saldana’s character fades away for about 20 minutes, making way for the KKK skirmish (Chris Sullivan gives another of the film’s fun performances, as an inbred-looking Klansman: “Ah don’t shake hands with Papists”), then she reappears, then it’s Fanning and the Christians. Even the ending seems to have too many endings.
This is not something we say very often, but Live by Night really should’ve been longer – ideally a series, like Boardwalk Empire. It’s never boring, but it’s overly packed and never comes to the boil. One theme, as already mentioned, is the country’s mongrel nature (Joe to a Mafia don: Are you okay with having an Irishman in your crew? His reply: “This is America; I’ve lived worse”). Another theme is the outlaw as free man, slowly coming to discern that the greatest prize in life is love, not freedom.
Mostly, however, the film chugs along, dripping small pleasures. The look impresses, courtesy of three-time Oscar winner Robert Richardson: a burning car upended in a river, a hospital bed with white light streaming through the window. A gangster’s moll wistfully tells Joe they’ll “sleep by day” but doesn’t add the obvious ‘live by night’ (thank you, cliché police!). And of course Ben Affleck the actor looks cool in a fedora, which may be why Ben Affleck the director made this handsome, unsatisfying film in the first place. That, and a story of success and disillusionment in the rigged, deadly game that is America, of course.
DIRECTED BY Ben Affleck
STARRING Ben Affleck, Elle Fanning, Chris Messina, Zoe Saldana
US 2016 128 mins