I have to tell you something. I love the style and look of 1920’s USA under the prohibition. Something about it just appeals to me and it’s not just because the entire era looks amazing on film, though it is partly that. The music is fantastic, the fashion and decor of the time is just the right level of glitzy without getting tacky and there is so much stuff going that there are a million interesting stories going on. So I am predisposed to films from the era, especially those that make the most of their setting. So can Live By Night take advantage of my biases?
Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck, Argo) works as a robber in 1920s Boston and tries to avoid the gangs of the city. That’s apart from dating the Irish mob leader’s mistress Emma Gould (Sienna Miller, Foxcatcher). However he is found out and after narrowly avoiding being killed, he heads down south to Florida to get revenge by destroying the alcohol supply to the Irish mob.
So let’s talk about what brought us to the party, the look of Live By Night. Setting a gangster film in the 1920s is pretty obvious because it’s the peak for general mafia style stuff, mainly thanks to the legacy of Al Capone. And Ben Affleck, who directs as well as acts in this film, does send us right back to the 1920s because he makes this film look beautiful. When we are in Boston the film looks like what you expect it to look like, glitzy Greast Gatsby style stuff with men wearing suits that look too big for them and women wearing the shiny flapper dresses. Yet even when we switch settings and go to Tampa in Florida, the film still looks amazing by combining the 1920s style with the harsh sunlight of the Sunshine State. It’s a film that looks amazing and considering my biases to the time period, sucked me in right away.
So how do we get from Boston to Tampa? Well the story certainly takes a few twists. At first you think it’s going to be a love story between Joe and Emma, with the two trying to avoid being found out by the mob and then killed. That’s exciting enough but when they are found out within the first half hour and Emma is killed while Joe just about gets away with it, you think revenge thriller. And yes, I’d watch that. A man slowly getting his revenge and taking out the Irish mob in Boston? That’s an amazing film in the making!
This is where Live By Night starts to trip up over itself. Because even though it has a very interesting story set up, it gets distracted by a million other stories it wants to tell. Firstly it wants us to delve into the morality of Joe, which is never developed enough to be interesting so that’s forgettable. Then we have gangsters taking on the Ku Klux Klan which could be amazing in itself, but that is wrapped up within half an hour. Then on this rollercoaster of a movie we move on to a Christian preacher decrying alcohol and the casino that Joe wants to open, but that ends off screen! Then finally the Irish mob and the revenge thriller aspect comes back into it after you’ve forgotten that’s a thing that happened.
Basically, it’s just too much going on. I feel like I keep repeating myself because a million films I’ve watched over the last few months have had this issue, but it lacks any focus. Find a story and tell it. Don’t try to pack about 90 stories into one movie because they are all weaker for it because you can’t spend the time each story needs. There’s a lot of good material in this film, every one of the plots in this move would make a fantastic film in itself, but they happen so quickly you can’t get a grasp on any of them. We need more time with the characters to get to know them better, we need more time to really get a handle of the stakes and we need more time so when the conclusion comes, it is more satisfying as it feels like they’ve defeated a genuine threat. This is a movie that need to either go longer, and honestly I’m pitching a Martin Scorsese three hour sort of thing, or be a TV series that’d probably get criticised for ripping off Boardwalk Empire.
And it is a huge shame because they are wasting so much good in this movie. Everyone puts in a great performance with Affleck doing very well in portraying this person who has only got involved in gangsterism to basically get some revenge over a women he loved and was then killed. You’ve got a great supporting cast too, with Sienna Miller making the most of her limited screen time and probably being the most memorable character in the whole thing. Heck, I really enjoyed Chris Messina (Vicky Christina Barcelona) as Joe’s right hand man Dion because he gets some of the best lines. But that’s more frustrating as he is charismatic enough to make you want to get to know him better, but the film is so jam packed there’s not a prayer in hell that a supporting character gets time to be developed, especially when the leads miss out on that.
Live By Night is a crushing disappointment, even if it isn’t an outright terrible movie. Maybe after a string of brilliant films, Affleck over reached himself and tried to tell an epic on the level of The Godfather but to do that you must give everyone involved time. I know studios do not like giving movies a running time longer than two and a half hours because we are starting to rebel against sitting inside a cinema for that long but sometimes a film needs it. Maybe in a few years time a director’s cut will be released and this film will be the classic it could have been but for now, Live By Night tries too much with too little.