Ringing phones, text alerts, and quiet chatter are all hallmarks of a disruptive audience at the movies. It’s disrespectful to those in attendance and disruptive to the narrative of the film. However, it’s also very telling of how said audience views the film they’re watching. Are they engrossed in the story and compelled to pay attention by great acting? Or are they so bored and disinterested, so alienated by what they see, that the compulsion to disrupt the experience becomes irresistible? Sitting in Live By Night, the latest Ben Affleck/Dennis Lehane collaboration, struggling to maintain my cool through numerous disruptions, I began to consider the distractions as a bit of a reprieve from a film that could’ve been far more intriguing if it didn’t try so hard to mean something.
Affleck plays Joe Coughlin, a WWI vet-turned outlaw, who robs banks in Boston to pay his bills. When he runs afoul of Irish Mob Boss Albert White (Robert Glenister), Joe goes to work for the opposition, in an open attempt to free himself from any man who would make him bend a knee. Heading up the Tampa-based rum operation for the Pescatore mob family, Joe proves he’s smart and cunning, but his soft heart may be his undoing in a business where noble men don’t live to see forty.
Live By Night works best as a crime thriller then it does as a dramatic morality play. Coughlin merely wants to live on his own terms and, though he’s willing to do whatever it takes, violence is often his last resort. Instead, he’d rather treat people with respect and find a way to work together. When that fails, he’ll do what he needs to do as long as it makes sense to do so. It looks like weakness to his enemies, which proves to be a frequently grave miscalculation. However, when the story gets bogged down in “good vs evil” the narrative loses steam. As with any good gangster film, audiences root for Coughlin – in large part to Affleck’s strong, engaging performance – so when he gets harangued over-and-over with variations of the “power corrupts” line it feels like a slap to the audience. One that, over time, becomes redundant and boring.
It certainly doesn’t help when audiences have to slog through the first hour. Though it’s important to set the stage, introduce characters, and establish motives, by the time Coughlin leaves Boston for Tampa, nearly an hour has gone by and the audience hasn’t been made to care about any of it. While this is problematic by itself, it’s made worse by the entire set-up barely paying off by the time the final showdown plays out.
Complicating matters is the casting in what could fairly be described as the cinematic version of “word salad”. There’s a veritable who’s-who in Live By Night – Sienna Miller, Chris Messina, Brendan Gleeson, Elle Fanning, Zoe Saldana, Chris Cooper, Max Casella, Anthony Michael Hall, and more. With the heavy split between the initial setup of the story in Boston before shifting the narrative to Tampa, the cast begins to feel more and more like an attempt to add gravitas to any character merely by putting someone audiences know in the role, rather developing the character up. Is it fun to see Anthony Michael Hall pop up? Sure. Did he need to appear for one scene? No. The worst offender is perhaps the extraordinary Brendon Gleeson who plays Thomas Coughlin, Boston police officer and Joe’s father. Given Gleeson’s talent and presence, it’s a shame he and Glenister didn’t switch roles because Gleeson on a tear is a beautiful sight to see. Not all of the appearances are a waste, however. Though Affleck seemed far more confident in 2016’s The Accountant, his performance is strong and engaging. Elle Fanning appears initially as a minor character whose involvement becomes more important as the narrative progresses, and Fanning handles Loretta Figgis’ ethereal nature with grace and a subtle touch. The highlight of the film is Chris Messina as Coughlin’s right-hand, Dion Bartolo. Anytime Messina’s on screen the tone of the film changes. His delivery slides between light and dark so quickly, and the chemistry between Messina and Affleck is so palpable, you could watch an entire film about these two and be happy.
Ultimately, audiences will want to like Live By Night, but may struggle to do so. It has some excellent character moments, challenges notions of right and wrong, and asks some lofty questions. The problem is that even though the use of the Prohibition Era, the rise of the Klu Klux Klan, and other socio-economic issues to address race relations and/or personal morality is intriguing, it’s not enough to get audiences to shut their yaps and ignoring their phones. It’s a shame that the balance of tone and structure didn’t work out in favor of the fun crime thriller within Live by Night as that aspect of the story would have certainly held audiences in thrall. Unfortunately, the strong second-half doesn’t redeem the tedious first-half. In the world of crime, noble men rarely live to see forty. In the world of cinema, mediocre movies rarely stay in theaters long.
Final Score: 3 out of 5.