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Review: Live By Night (2016)

Live By Night (2016)

Directed by: Ben Affleck

Premise: Based on the novel by Dennis Lehane. Set in the Prohibition era, a Boston-bred criminal (Ben Affleck) goes to work in Tampa, running the speakeasy scene on behalf of a national crime lord.

What Works: Live By Night has some impressive production values. As a movie that takes place in the Prohibition period, the film feels authentically of its time. The props, costumes, and settings feel lived in and organic. The sequences taking place in speakeasies and other establishments have grit and subtle detail and the Florida landscape is photographed well. There are a few interesting subplots going on in Live By Night. The lead character, a white gangster with an Irish-Catholic background, takes up with a woman of Dominican descent (Zoe Saldana) and together they run a network of speakeasies. This does not sit well with the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan and the mob-controlled establishments become targets of violence. This sets up a curious conflict between the Klan and organized crime in which the mafia are the good guys or at least the ones with recognizably progressive values. Later in the film, Affleck’s character begins to plan for Prohibition’s end by building a casino but his designs are stymied by a tent preacher who happens to be the daughter of the local sheriff. This is another unusual conflict, as Affleck’s character does not quite know how to combat this woman and refuses to have her killed. The young preacher is played by Elle Fanning and she is easily the best part of the film. She is introduced early on as the daughter of a proper and conservative household but upon going west to pursue a career in show business she is corrupted and turns to drugs. When Fanning’s character returns she is broken and pursues a life of faith. This woman’s pain seethes through her zealotry and she is the most watchable character in the film. Also impressive is Chris Cooper and her father. He’s never the same after learning what happened to his daughter and Cooper brings a lot to what could otherwise be a cliché conservative father figure.

What Doesn’t: Live By Night suffers from an episodic story structure. The film plays like a series of vignettes and each section is divorced from the others. This becomes especially apparent in the ending. The movie doesn’t have a feeling of escalation and its story isn’t driving toward the conclusion. There are several interesting ideas and themes at work in Live By Night. Affleck’s character is the son of a policeman and the story creates obvious parallels between law enforcement and organized crime, suggesting an equivocation between the two. It also puts forth the idea that Prohibition-era organized crime may have advanced progressive ideas about the social roles of men and women and been a foil to the regressive forces represented by the Ku Klux Klan. There is also an ongoing theme of corruption. Deep down, Affleck’s character is a good guy, or so the film claims, and he risks losing his integrity in order to be a successful criminal. The problem is that Live By Night never really addresses these ideas any deeper or more thoughtfully than that. In fact, the movie is at times quite lazy about its ideas. Affleck’s character is a murderer but he’s only shown killing KKK members, who are depicted as backward, inbred, white trash whose demise the audience is expected to cheer. This sidesteps the very moral complexity that the filmmakers seek to court. It is as though the filmmakers didn’t have a coherent idea of what they were trying to say or the story they were trying to tell. Live By Night also suffers from the miscasting of Ben Affleck in the lead role. The role requires someone with a greater range and capacity for moral ambiguity than Affleck is able to muster.

Bottom Line: Live By Night is a motion picture that would have been better conceived as a television series. Each section of its story is rich enough to form the basis of a season of scripted drama. But presented as a single feature film, Live By Night is simultaneously shallow and bloated. It wants to be morally complex but it doesn’t have the space to develop its ideas.

Episode: #631 (January 22, 2017)