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.