My long-standing love for mob films runs deep so when “Live by Night”, a roaring 20s mobster period piece, was announced, I was pretty stoked to see it. Based on the book of the same name by Dennis Lehane, whose works also include Mystic River and Sutter Island, “Live by Night” is an almost larger than life story, spanning over multiple years and touching on multiple hot button topics like addiction, racism and religion. Unfortunately, the silver screen translation, directed and starred, by two-time Oscar winner Ben Affleck, didn’t carry “umph” and ambition that the book does.
“Live by Night” hales a pretty impressive cast telling the story Joe Coughlin (Affleck), Irish mobster and son of the police chief (Brendan Gleeson), attempting to rise through the mafia ranks in Boston along with his lover, and local mob boss Albet White’s (Robert Glenister) girlfriend, Emma (Sienna Miller). Others who make appearances in the film include Remo Girone, Chris Cooper, Zoe Saldana, and Ellie Fanning.
Though “Live by Night” has a great cast, and generous plot to work with, there weren’t many times where I get that exciting, “in on the action” feeling that most mobster films provide. In fact, I spent a lot of the time feeling as if it was waiting. With scenes stuffed with dialoged, I was waiting for things to happen, thinking that, maybe, this slow scene would be the last before something big (though it never felt like it was.) While the production design by Jess Gonchor and set decoration by Nancy Haigh was top quality, there wasn’t that sense of grimy, getting your hands dirty feeling, to makes the costumes and setting feel real. It felt like I was waiting to be immersed in the mafia world, full of grit and grime. Yes, they all wore their nice suits like you expect made men to wear, but after offing a 3 people before lunch, it’s hard to believe that the characters remain so pristine.
However, what I was really waiting for, and what I believe became the ultimate downfall of “Live by Night”, was to have gained any sense of loyalty, or even empathy, for main character Coughlin. In the Scorsese mafia film “Goodfellas”, I became loyal to protagonist Henry Hill. Sure, he was a bad guy who did bad things, but the film made me want him to succeed. Affleck’s Coughlin is constantly straddling this confusing line between being a good guy and a bad guy in a way that left me, more or less, indifferent by the end. Affleck lacked a passion and conviction in his decisions, both good and bad, which could have pulled me on his side. I think both lack luster acting, and the writing of his character, is to blame.
“Live by Night” wasn’t a bad film, but it was a bad mafia film. The acting, for the most part, was good but the writing and the direction of the film was hard to read. It was trying to be like “Goodfellas” or even “The Godfather”, while also trying to be touching, in a way that made it feel much less like a mob movie and more of a crime drama (which I truly believe there is a difference.) Lehane’s book presented a expanded story that was full of issues to cover, and the film just couldn’t seem to grasp it all in a convincing way, and I got tired of waiting for it to do so.