Let’s just get this out of the way, shall we: While it’s true that Live by Night does lack the right type of dramatic weight to allow it to become part of the greater canon of gangster epics, that doesn’t mean it’s a particularly bad movie by any measure. I walked out of Live by Night feeling pretty satisfied, after all. It’s more that the movie falls short of expectations that were placed on it after Affleck previous picture, Argo, won the Best Picture Oscar in 2012. You don’t really want to follow an Oscar win with a work that makes you go “eh, it’s alright, I guess.” Simply put, despite it’s clear grand ambitions to deliver to you what might in theory have been this decades the Untouchables, the final result is merely a very mediocre period crime flick. Perhaps Chris Terrio ought to have been called for some late night script doctoring? But more about that later.
Despite the flack the movie has received, as far as simple entertainment goes, it was still a reasonably fun ride for me. For anyone who enjoys period pictures for their aesthetics, such as your truly, this movie has plenty to offer. Everything from costuming to the sets has a sense of authenticity and are just gorgeous to look at. It’s clear they spent a lot of time to get the period look just right and look glamorous. And it really paid off. I don’t even remember when I last saw something set in the 20s that felt this classy and stylish, aside from HBO’s Boardwalk Empire of course.
Apart from being stylish, it’s also a very fun and at times exciting movie. There’s even a couple of well executed action sequences that give this gangster picture some of its much needed thrills and color. The 1920s car chase with the cops at the beginning of the story offers plenty of electric intensity, but what really gets that adrenaline pumping is the good old fashioned gangster shootout scene near the end of the movie, where numerous wiseguys meet their violent demise through the barrel of a Tommy Gun. It’s an especially nice sequence because it’s almost entirely shot inside a fortified mansion, with plenty of the action taking place in tight corridors and staircases, adding some modern military action flavor to the mix.
As expected of a cast with this much talent, the acting is very across the board. Though Ben Affleck perhaps doesn’t give exactly an Oscar winning performance, he’s still entirely serviceable and likable as the lead protagonist, Joe, who starts out as a low level Irish robber and quickly climbs up the ladder to become the biggest mob boss in Tampa during the height of the prohibition era. Moving on to the other players, Chris Messina is very charming as Joe’s ever present Hispanic second in command sidekick. He’s a fun character and you kinda wish he had been given some additional screen time to get better fleshed out. Miss Elle Fanning manages to squeeze a surprising amount of depth from her otherwise a bit one-note religious character, and while Zoe Saldana does feel marginalized in her token love interest role, thankfully she’s not entirely reduced to being just a pretty face in the background, as you get some hints to her having her own core values and interests, even if those aren’t fully explored to my liking. Moving on to Sienna Miller, whom I always associate (in purely negative fashion and with some considerable disdain) with the awful G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra movie disaster, she was much to my surprise quite good in this, despite her role not being that big. I was frankly very impressed by her. I even started to wonder if I need to look up what she’s done recently, if this is the level of performance you can expect from her now. Last, but by no means the least, we also have a couple of very reliable supporting actors in the movie, namely Chris Cooper and Brendan Gleeson, making each minute they are on screen almost heavenly. Especially Gleeson, whose small role as Joe’s father shines brightly like the beacon of the lighthouse.
With the most positive things out of the way, let’s jump to the cons. If I had to put my finger on what it is that drags an otherwise okay movie down so much, it would probably be the screenplay. More specifically, the way the script feels far too lean and polished, like it was written and re-written until it had lost most of its personality and edge in the process. The story progresses almost at a clinical precision and pace, there’s no second wasted. When something happens, there’s a very specific reason for it and it’s done as efficiently as possibly. And unfortunately it’s pretty clear that the strong linear structure was only achieved at the expense of the characters not being developed enough. There’s simply no room allowed for anybody to breathe and become more rounded individuals, and that’s why you don’t really end up connecting with most of the characters in the story. I can’t help but feel that if Affleck had had someone, like Chris Terrior for example, accompanying him as a co-writer on the screenplay, it might have helped to balance the script better.
The characters lacking enough depth in the script becomes rather self-evident when you start to realize that it’s only Gleeson, Fanning and Cooper’s characters that have stuck to you the most in the entire movie, where as Ben Affleck’s Joe, despite being the lead character and having most of the screen time, is way too bland to leave much of a strong impression, and that’s why his personal tragedies barely even register. Out of the aforementioned three, it’s Elle Fanning’s character Loretta, the former aspiring actress turned drug addict before re-born as a religious zealot who ends up creating trouble for Joe down the line, that you end up connecting the most. This is largely achieved by the movie going out of its way to provide you a big, very character driven scene between Loretta and Joe, where during the course of a deep conversation, she slowly reveals her most intimate thoughts and feelings of unbearable emotional suffering to the audience, allowing you to get emotionally attached with her in the process. And this is what I mean when I say the script is too clinical. Their conversation at the diner is one of the few really big character scenes in the entire movie, and they deliberately take time to paint Loretta as a highly sympathetic figure. But here’s the catch, it’s only there just so that they can then go and kill her off (via suicide) as a form of a big emotional twist. It’s very blatant emotional manipulation on the script’s part and it’s super annoying because it clearly shows that Affleck was capable of making you care about the characters if he wanted to, but in most other instances where someone dies and a similar emotional response was expected and even required for the scene to work, he miserably fails to deliver the goods.
As for why Gleeson and Cooper stick out, surprisingly it is not because they were treated the same way as Fanning’s Loretta and were given scenes that really borrow into their characters. Quite the contrary. They receive very little emphasis in the script, but make a large impact through their sheer enormous acting talent, which allows them to do more with less. Cooper especially does a very nice and nuanced job of slowly making his character become one of the most interesting people in the entire movie, which is genuinely surprising given how he is initially established as the clichéd, no nonsense token cop figure who agrees to look the other way when it comes to the mob producing and transporting illegal liquor as long as in exchange his town and its streets are kept peaceful, with no bootlegger induced violence allowed to spill on the streets.
Finally, following on an earlier point about being unable to connect with the characters, this really causes a critical problem down the line with the ending of the movie, which is meant to feature a rather shocking and sort of sad moral lesson about how you can’t just walk away unscathed from a life of violence because the ugly past will always catch up to you, done here in the form of Joe’s wife, played by Zoe Saldana, dying in a completely random shooting. It’s a complete misfire as a scene, as you don’t really have any proper emotional investment to Saldana’s character. She was sort of sexy love interest, with a hints of interesting character attributes, but you never really got presented any reason to start to care about her. Her romance with Joe was very rushed and you never really get to see much of their family life together in a meaningful way that would have scored some easy sympathy points and given additional weight to her death. Even when Joe is a bit later meant to have a series of somber moments with his young son after she’s buried and the movie starts to draw to a close, which clearly intended to end the movie on a very sentimental note, it feels oddly superfluous and meaningless because the feeling of loss that is supposed to be hanging in the air has no impact to you as a viewer. And that’s really the frustrating core issue with this movie. The pieces are all there, but when you lack the fundamental and genuine connection between the characters and the audience, in the end you are left with a technically a competent piece of movie that doesn’t quite click with you on the emotional level.