Impeccably crafted and engrossing in every way, Live By Night expertly tackles gangster genre conventions and propels them to exciting heights under the sturdy hands of filmmaker Ben Affleck.
Following the success of Argo would have been a massive challenge for Affleck, a filmmaker of immense skill and nose for good material. Delving back into the works of celebrated crime novelist Dennis Lahane (Affleck’s debut Gone Baby Gone was a Lahane adaptation), Affleck once again hits pay dirt with Live By Night, a sprawling gangster movie epic that once again demonstrates Affleck’s deft hand at tense, action filled filmmaking, and presenting characters in constant conflict with who they are and the environment they have cornered themselves into.
Such is the case of Joe Coughlin (Affleck), a WWI veteran whose distaste for authority leads him to a life of armed robbery, to the dismay of his Police Chief father Thomas (Brendan Gleeson, brilliant in limited screen time). Caught up in a mob war between Irish mob boss Albert White (Robert Glenister) who Teddy seeks revenge against, and Italian mob boss Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone) who Teddy pledges allegiance to, the film transitions from the cold grey skies of Boston to the sunny climes of Florida, where Teddy re-establishes the Pescatore family’s power as the kings of rum during the prohibition era.
It is in the Florida portion of the movie where Live By Night establishes itself as a gangster movie of many shades and characters threads. Coughlin navigates a world of cultures, rules and prejudices within which Cubans, African Americans and Italians co-exist in an uneasy alliance, as the Klu Klux Klan walk among them in open disgust and the Protestant Christian authorities enforce their class warfare. Characters such as Cuban businesswoman and revolutionary Graciela (Zoe Saldana), incorruptible yet co-operative Chief of Police Figgis (Chris Cooper), his drug addicted daughter turned preacher sensation Loretta (Elle Fanning), and Klu Klux Klan enforcer getting too big for his britches RD (Matthew Maher), all cross paths with a tough as nails yet conflicted Coughlin who holds a morally challenged philosophy towards his profession. It allows Affleck to delve into political commentary on race and religious divides in an America where to be Catholic, Italian, black, Jewish, or (insert anything other than white Protestant) was akin to being second class, a fact that still resonates in todays would as well.
With such wealth of material, perhaps Affleck would have benefited in creating a mini-series or standalone anthology TV series. Yet in doing so would have robbed movie viewers of some of the most spectacular period imagery and visceral action filmmaking that deserves to be seen on the big screen, as Affleck and his Argo cohort’s editor William Goldenberg and costume designer Jacqueline West, along with cinematographer Robert Richardson (The Hateful Eight) and production designer Jess Gonchor (True Grit), all deliver stellar work that pops off the screen.
Affleck has recently found a larger audience in his casting as Batman. While movie star is a suit that he wears well, it is his role of filmmaker where his talent truly shines, with Live By Night another strong example of that fact.