Live by Night
Ben Affleck's Live by Night is a roaring homage to mobster movies that plays out in a familiar fashion to his previous films. Affleck's writing and directing is sound, but he does revisit similar themes and situations, which makes Live by Night a bloody and entertaining gangster film, but one that feels like he's already done this before.
Ben Affleck returns both behind and in front of the lens to direct/write/produce/star in his adaptation of Dennis Lehane‘s novel, Live by Night. This mobster flick focuses on one man’s crooked morality and perception of what it means to be a mob boss in a world where you simply give or take. Live by Night is a bloody and violent homage to mobster films of the past, shot with an eye for period piece detail and messy performances that make for a film that’s engaging, pulpy, but somewhat familiar to his previous efforts. Live by Night is not a great movie, but it is a very good one.
Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck) is a prideful man. He served in the military during WWI, which is where he decided that he was going to take orders from anyone anymore. If he wanted something in life then he was simply going to take it, which has led to him being an outlaw, looting from mob bosses as he sees. But everything has a price and eventually the world catches up even to those that choose to live by their own ways.
This makes things conflicting for Joe as his heart is bigger than his head, which leads to women problems, bootlegging curiosities and a confrontation of just who he really is. Is he cruel enough to be one of those men that he swore to never serve or is he simply trying to rebel for the heck of it?
His rebel instincts come from his father, police chief Tommy Coughlin (Brendan Gleeson), but his attitude towards the world is definitely something that has grown over time as Joe has faced the world and seen what it can do to people.
Live by Night is an interesting adaptation, because it strikes a familiar chord in Ben Affleck‘s writer/director resume. The novel was written by the same guy that wrote Affleck’s directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone, and yet the film feels ever so similar to Affleck’s more modern crime film The Town.
In both films, Affleck’s character is conflicted and jaded, participating in the bank robberies, but then almost immediately reminding others how he’s different than the goons that he robs and hangs around with.
His character in The Town doesn’t seem nearly as interested in rebelling or proving to the world who he is, nor is he willing to go as far, which makes Live by Night more of an extended look at a familiar character.
I respect Affleck as a filmmaker, because he clearly has a love for crime films, old time Hollywood and layered storytelling that mostly operates within the grey areas. Most filmmakers choose to give you happy endings and clean cut victories, while Affleck’s films almost always deal with heavy loss and a crossroad of morality.
The Town may be a leaner and more focused film, but that doesn’t mean that Live by Night is not as engaging or even as fun. Live by Night is a violent and bloody film that absolutely soaks in the period piece look and feel. Affleck really did think of it all, from the music, costume design and every single location. There are some truly great shots captured in Live by Night and only does someone like Affleck know when to slow things down and apply focus.
The film’s ending drags a bit more than it should and Affleck’s retread of themes and ideas does become noticeable, but never distracting. It’s no secret that some filmmakers wrestle with the same themes and concepts throughout their whole career — the point is to make sure each story feels like its own thing. Filmmakers like Rob Zombie dilute their storytelling to the same old shit, while guys like Ben Affleck manage to tell similar tales, but in ways that make them feel slightly different or like an extension of what came before it.
Live by Night might not be as well-rounded of a film as the masterpiece The Town, but it does feel like a deeper exploration of a character, following him down the rabbit hole just a bit more as he gets his hands dirty and attempts to come up clean.
Live by Night wrestles with the idea of getting back from this world what you put in, which can sometimes mean death, violence and loss on both sides. It’s a worthwhile viewing that I recommend to those that can stomach a true mobster flick that doesn’t exactly hold back where others might.