Witness The Price Of The American Dream
Joe Coughlin [Affleck] returned from fighting World War I in France and became a low-level hoodlum who falls in love with the Irish mob boss’ girl, Emma [Miller]. Word gets to the Italian mob of the liaison and Joe is blackmailed to take out the head of the rival Irish mob. The situation develops and Joe is then sent down to run rum production in Miami. Committed to the criminal life, Joe deepens his ties by dating Cuban gangster Graciela Corrales [Saldana] but for every step ahead, his past is catching up with him just as quickly.
Live By Night isn’t hard to critique; at its core is one glaring issue which completely ruins what could have been a decent period gangster flick. The issue in question is less what’s in the film and more what was left out. As an adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s 401 page novel, there was obviously going to be a great deal that needed to be axed but whether through scripting or editing, a potentially engaging three hour epic (or TV miniseries) has been utterly mutilated with rushed pacing and developments that are introduced and dismissed with amazing speed. The finished product is like a lengthy sizzle reel or extremely extended trailer for something greater; imagine condensing all five seasons of Boardwalk Empire into one movie. Sure, it’s possible but you’d lose far too much. Admittedly, Affleck does a great job retaining the most prominent plot points but they are all far too rushed to enjoy, meaning at least four separate films are present in this release but boiled down to half an hour segments. We’ve got the Irish/Italian mob story, tracking a World War I veteran’s criminal actions in 1920’s Boston while falling in love with the boss’ main squeeze, the Miami bootleg film which talks about the political divide of the prohibition scene in the southern states and relations between the United States and Cuba, a separate film about criminals trying to legitimise their enterprise for the eventual day when their product becomes legal while being met with resistance in the form of religious extremists and finally a story about a gangster running from his past, trying to get out and live a decent life, hoping he can outrun his sins. So, for those keeping track, that’s Gangs Of New York, Scarface, The Long Good Friday AND Carlito’s Way in one two hour film!
Amazingly, everything else is pretty wonderful. The production design is great, demonstrating some eclectic styles from the 1920’s and 30’s as well as the climate change which shifts from thick dark suits and long wool coats to white linen pieces and straw hats. The shift of location also changes the entire cinematographic colour palate from the overcast Boston skies to the sun kissed bayous of Florida, which keeps the film feeling somewhat fresh. Once again, Affleck highlights his directorial deftness, shooting the conversations with ease and handling the action scenes masterfully; knowing exactly when to keep the camera close and when to pull back is such a talent for a director and one most cannot master but one Affleck has never had a problem with. Which brings us to the casting; so many fantastic names giving marvelous bite-size performances. Each shift in location and narrative introduces us to another great character portrayed by an extremely talented actor. The only one that seems to be a little questionable is Affleck himself. Experience has bred confidence and owing to his success in leading and helming The Town and Argo, one wouldn’t be surprised that Affleck cast himself in the lead role but I think if Joe Coughlin was given to another actor, Affleck could have focused solely on directing and really brought out a fantastically interesting and thrilling performance. That isn’t to say he’s done a bad job but his tone jumps around a little erratically and as decent as it is, it would have been nice to see a different face in that part.
But all of this is moot as every single positive point is presented with the caveat: “if we had time to explore it/them.” The production value is amazing, if we had time to explore it. The cinematography is rich and capable, if we had time to explore it. The story raises a lot of interesting narrative threads, if we had time to explore them. So many amazing actors are given interesting roles, if we had time to explore them. And it’s such a fundamental and brutally cutting problem that it genuinely sullies the entire release.
I wouldn’t say this is a crippling blow to Affleck’s career as a director; on the contrary, I feel he is still an absolutely astonishing director and eagerly look forward to his next project but I think there should have been an honest assessment of the source material and if the film needed to run for three hours, to let it run. What we have here is the impression of a decent film sliced up into a moderately acceptable one. For the positive elements, Live By Night is definitely worth a watch but be prepared for a structurally bent and buckled release which will no doubt leave you feeling hollow and forlorn for what could have been.
13th January 2017
The Scene To Look Out For:
One section of this movie’s many narratives takes place after Joe has established himself as a successful crime lord. He runs the Miami rum operation with precision and largely without incident. Foreseeing the end of prohibition, he concocts the idea to build a casino, pressing the mob’s paid-off judges and officials to legalise gambling and construct a major casino. Everything is lining up well but is immediately ruined by a two-armed flanking of religious extremists in the form of the Ku Klux Klan and a young female evangelist. The whole segment is great as Joe is constantly bombarded with problems, first of all getting the boss to sign off on the idea, then the KKK who oppose the idea of a successful club for Central Americans and black people before finally getting to an abuse victim turned religious zealot who preaches against the vice of gambling. The frustration of getting the law and the public on board with your ill-gotten gains, only to be stopped by bigotry and firm held beliefs is just superb, especially as the moral area is so grey that you don’t exactly know who to root for.
Out of such a huge, impressive cast, it’s an immense disappointment that they were only on-screen for such a brief period and when we edged closer to some really interesting development, they’re almost always killed off in the form of a climactic shootout or a completely underplayed voiceover. Personally I found the role of R.D. Pruitt by Matthew Maher particularly endearing – if that’s the appropriate phrase. He’s a despicable individual but he’s portrayed brilliantly with a decent amount of humour, absurdity and wildness. As mentioned in my highlighted scene, the KKK don’t take kindly to establishments for people of colour and find involvement from “papist gangsters” wholly unwelcome. While most grind their teeth, one of the more colourful characters of their order, R.D. Pruitt, takes it upon himself to mask up and wantonly shoot up bars and casually chuck pipe-bombs into speakeasies whilst simultaneously a sixty per cent cut of the profits. Given enough time to develop, Pruitt would have been an interesting and impressively deceptive adversary.
“I do play chess, my father taught me, and what you need to remember is that the pawn and the king all end up in the same box”
In A Few Words:
“When it works, this film is on fire but for the remainder of the runtime, we’re treated to a glimpse of what could have been a truly spectacular release”