Live by Night full movie review - Live By Night is a Rock Solid Gangster Story
This movie checked off several boxes for me. I really enjoy gangster stories and this was a 1920s-1930s period piece (I think it's a really interesting era), so I was intrigued.
Add in that Ben Affleck has been killing it as a director lately and I was in. The trailer was pretty great too, I was so jacked up for this I went and read Dennis Lehane's book (which was pretty great, I'll be reading more of his stuff in the future). It was one of those movies that was a must-see in the theatre for me. The bad reviews didn't deter me and I'm glad they didn't, expectations might have been too high for this and this movie accomplished what it wanted to.
*Minor Spoilers Ahead* Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck) is back from WW1 and feels pretty dejected. The war had almost been pointless for him, he saw a lot of death and destruction and he's ready to enjoy his freedom and the good life even if it means dying for it. He gets back to his hometown of Boston and he begins his life as an outlaw.
His situation is more complicated than most, it's not a good time to be running his own operation. The city is in the midst of a war between the Irish mob run by Albert White (Rob Glenister) and the Italian mafia run by Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone). Add in that his dad Thomas Coughlin (Brendan Gleeson) is a high ranking official in the Boston PD, so it's a volatile combination. One fateful day, he robs a backroom poker game with several high ranking officials in the Albert White mob in attendance with his 2 friends Dion (Chris Messina) and his brother. The waitress covering the game is Emma Gould (Sienna Miller) who was more than a little sly during the robbery. It's for good reason we find out, she's Joe's lover. But the events of that day turn the course of Joe's life toward a darker path that he can't escape.
It's kind of cool to be writing this review from the point of view of knowing the source material pretty well. I'm happy to report that this movie is pretty faithful to the source material. A lot of the dialogue is ripped right out of the book. It changes certain parts of the story, mostly in the beginning and in the end but otherwise I was very impressed that Affleck and his team went so close to the book. There was a part of the story that I was disappointed they didn't include (robbing a U.S. naval vessel) but if one of my biggest criticisms is that they couldn't include every part of the awesome original narrative, that should show how stuffed the movie is with good bits. Some of the critics have complained about the pacing of the movie but I was never bored. There was always some new enemy or new problem Joe had to deal with and I wanted to know how Joe would figure out how to deal with them.
The accurate translation of the book carries over into things like the cinematography, set-design, costumes and other visual parts. This is a beautiful movie. You would think I'm exaggerating because it's a gangster movie but the movie knows it, especially when they're in Florida. The movie has several absolutely beautiful shots of the Florida landscape and instead of distracting me from the central story, it actually enriched it. The last point I want to make about the visuals and directing is that Affleck really knows how to shoot the $#!& out of an action scene. The action is great in this movie in a gritty and fairly believable way. It's easy to see how Affleck's turned himself into one of the best directors out there in present time.
Ben Affleck also put together a hell of a cast and minus one or two people, they all did good work. I actually didn't like Affleck as much as I thought I would in the first 1/3 of the movie, the character in the book is much younger and Affleck didn't quite seem to gel. But as the movie went along, the character grew and Affleck seemed to fit better. I was blown away by Sienna Miller, she was not only pitch-perfect as Emma but she nailed the Irish accent. Chris Messina brought some nice levity to the movie, he and Affleck played off each other very well. Veteran character actors like Brendan Gleeson and Chris Cooper were pretty solid. I liked Elle Fanning a lot better in this than the Neon Demon. I felt bad for Zoe Saldana as Graciela, she was pretty good but her character had a lot more depth in the book.
The only other complaint I have about Live By Night is that the characterization was kind of uneven. I think that was mainly because they couldn't include everything from the book but it was still a small disappointment. Some of the characters didn't get their arcs, the biggest omissions were Graciela, Dion Bartolo and Esteban Suarez. I don't think this was neglectful by Affleck but there was a hatchet taken to the book and some of the parts that were cleaved were little parts that could have made the movie better.
I think the critics have been too hard on this movie. It's not as good as the Godfather, Goodfellas or The Town but it's a well put together gangster movie. I would compare it in quality to Black Mass, the 2015 Johnny Depp movie. That movie had a better central performance but I think this had better production values, a story with better flow and better action scenes. If you like gangster movies or Dennis Lehane's novel, check this out. In terms of Affleck's output, The Town was better but this is still well above your typical January release.