Live By Night

I’m a big fan of films set in the prohibition era – the core ingredients should be pretty easy to combine into the perfect cinema experience: stylish cars, col clothes, snappy dialogue, gangsters, femme fatales, double crossing, violence. What’s not to like? But after the classic film noir period, it’s been a mixed bag. In the past 20 years we’ve had the middling Lawless, the boring Public Enemies and the made from off cuts found on the floor Gangster Squad. Only the Coen brothers Millers Crossing has captured the style, complex plotting and panache of the early films.

So into this context comes Ben Affleck’s Live By Night. It boasts many of the elements you’d want – beautiful cinematography, battling gangster factions, and a good smattering of shoot ups. Following the longer narrative arc of the life of Affleck’s reluctant gangster, it’s more Scarface than Maltese Falcon. While he provides a reasonable center Affleck doesn’t have the gravitas to portray the duality of a man pulled into the life, the way Pacino does in Godfather 2, or the menace of someone to be genuinely feared, the way, erm, Pacino did in Scarface.

Live by Night is really an HBO series condensed into a film. It features a number of sub-plots and engaging side characters, such as the Police Chief and his religious daughter, Affleck’s moralistic Irish cop father, and Zoe Saldana’s Cuban political ambitions. But here it suffers by comparison to the imperious Boardwalk Empire which explored the emotional and dramatic landscape so completely that there seems little point in revisiting it. In terms of the cinematic genre of modern prohibition films, Affleck’s outing ranks above Gangster Squad, but below Millers Crossing, which is ok, but not quite what you’d hoped for.

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2 Responses to Live By Night

  1. Jim Groom says:

    Martin,
    I’ve been in the US for work the last couple of weeks, so I had some time to catch up on films (this one, La La Land, Rogue One, and soon some classics at a Library of Congress movie house). I have to say you are being a bit too kind on this one. It sucked.

    The film is too self conscious of what they were were trying to do. The few shocking, gripping scenes (such as the scene where the Klan member is shot cause he was not powerful enough) just fell flat. I was never engaged by the action, and the final shoot-out was a poorly choreographed rip-off of that genius scene in Albert Finney’s Miller’s Crossing. The lack of Gravitas in Affleck is right, but rather then feeling meh about it, I felt cheated by the veneer given there was so little behind it. Also, I would bet the Irish and/or Italian mob in the 30s were just as racist and enterprising as the Klan—the portrayal of the Southerners and the South seemed cheap, almost trying to make a flaccid political point about Affleck’s politics today, rather than telling a story about a time period in all its complexity 90 years ago. You are too nice to this film, you must be harsher if you are gonna up you readership 🙂

    • admin says:

      You’re right – I _am_ too nice. I guess I like prohibition films so even a half decent one is ok, particularly after the mess of Gangster Squad. But you’re right about that modern political sensibility being grafted onto this awkwardly – yeah, like an Irish gangster in the 1930s from Boston is all civil liberties. I shall try to up my vitriol.

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