Ben Affleck takes a break from DC and the Dark Knight to revisit the kind of serious and realistic — as well as socially conscious — material that brought him accolades in the last few years, and in his career’s halcyon days of Good Will Hunting.
Affleck stars as Irish mob henchman Joe Coughlin, a cop’s son who gets in too deep when he falls for “da boss’s gal” (Sienna Miller) and starts sleeping with her. Naturally, they are exposed and suffer the consequences. Out for revenge after some prison time, and fearing his love dead, Coughlin reaches out to his Italian counterparts who send him to Tampa to expand their rum running operation, and muscle in on his old boss (Robert Glenister). There, Joe becomes a more resourceful gangster, finds a new love interest (Zoe Saldana), and immerses himself in the diverse local culture.
Coughlin navigates the multi-ethnic milieu and gets caught up in all kinds of racial and religious tension, including a run-in with some Klansmen who want their cut. A little later, he runs afoul of the sheriff’s teenage daughter (Elle Fanning in a daring performance fresh off another in Neon Demon) who, finding God after a heroin addiction, leads a crusade against a casino project the mafia wants up and running. Joe’s eyes are those of the Irish-American experience; ultimately, however, he serves as a proxy for a larger national experience of the time.
Much like Coughlin’s fluid paradigm, Live By Night starts off as one thing on the streets of Boston (a Roaring Twenties crime picture), and takes a turn, morphing into something else in the second (a tropical, multicultural film noir with shades of Mississippi Burning). While different in the latter half, the 180 shift is far from a runaway affair, remaining grounded in the central story, even if gratuitously leaving no stone unturned. Great lengths are gone to in clearing up the fates of practically everybody — many of whom don’t make it, some unexpectedly and others in a cursory way, quickly being bumped off.
Keeping some things open-ended at the end would’ve redounded more to the film’s artfulness. Cinematography by Robert Richardson ensconces the eye in Florida’s marshy topography. Live‘s palate and mise-en-scene are colorfully dynamic and, replete with scenes punctuated by dance montages at clubs hopping with Caribbean music, equally absorbed by the ambiance.
Live By Night‘s themes and its auteur-driven look, but above all its timing, make it virtual Oscar bait. However, in a very busy season, the film is bound to get lost in the shuffle. Shame, since it is such a gorgeous exercise in style and storytelling.
It may not be Argo or The Town, but Live By Night is a real treat visually, and a mark of Affleck’s craftsmanship. Don’t be concerned with seeing it in haste (unless, of course, your only other choice is Underworld), but it is enjoyable and certain to be enjoyed best on the big screen.