Friday, January 13, 2017
Director: Ben Affleck
Writer: Ben Affleck
Featuring: Ben Affleck, Zoe Saldana, Chris Cooper, Sienna Miller
ChinoKino score: B
Review by Allan Tong
A showcase of Ben Affleck's talents behind and in front of the camera, Live by Night is an uneven gangster flick redeemed by an intriguing storyline and moments of poignancy that raise this film above pulp fiction.
Based on the novel by Dennis Lehane, Live by Night is about Joe Coughlin (Affleck), a disillusioned World War I vet and the bad son of a Boston police captain, who goes into bootlegging during Prohibition.
There are scores of films about the Italian mob, but few about the Irish. This is a welcome change. Coughlin's ethnicity continues to play a role after the bloody first act set in 1920's Boston. Live by Night then shifts to Tampa, Florida after Coughlin barely survives Irish rival, Albert White and leaves behind his love, Emma Gould (Sienna Miller).
1920's Tampa is an uneasy melting pot of blacks, Cubans, other Latin Americans and the Klan. Coughlin strikes a deal with the Italian mob to create a rum-running empire. He inevitably clashes with the Klan, who despise the Papist Coughlin and his black-Latino girlfriend (Zoe Saldana), but strikes an alliance with Tampa Sheriff, Irving Figgis (Chris Cooper). Coughlin prospers until Figgis' born-again daughter threatens his plan of opening a giant casino, backed by Italian mobster Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone).
I haven't read Lehane's book, but no novel fits neatly into a two-hour film. A book needs to be streamlined by discarding subplots and removing unnecessary characters. I suspect Affleck hasn't done enough condensing, since the first 20 minutes of the film are quite busy, then the story takes an abrupt turn that nearly breaks the story's overall flow. Further, the Emma Gould romance is completely unnecessary.
However, Sheriff Figgis and his daughter, Loretta (Elle Fanning), uplift the second part of the film with an unexpected twist (no spoilers here). Chris Cooper lends Figgis depth and pathos to avoid a one-dimensional character. Saldana is a fine actress, but her character is underwritten, so she remains the obligatory gangster's wife in the background.
However, it's groundbreaking to see an interracial couple in a gangster flick or Hollywood blockbuster. In fact, race plays an important undercurrent throughout the film. America in the 20's and early-30's is a land of casual bigotry where Klansman terrorized at will. It's rare to see an American film capture this historic climate of intolerance--and we need these reminders in 2017.
As for Affleck, I didn't think he was right for this role until the very end. He's underplaying it too much, I thought. He needs to play Coughlin bigger, a little less Michael Corleone of the first two Godfathers and a little more Tony Soprano. But Affleck's icy calm serves the climax well and avoids the bombast that mars too many gangster tales.
Live by Night is messy in places and sprawls, but it has moments that shine and is worth a look.