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Live by Night Movie Review

Live by Night Blu-ray cover art
Live by Night is now available on home video. Read our review of the Blu-ray.

Live by Night (2016) movie poster Live by Night

Theatrical Release: December 23, 2016 / Running Time: 129 Minutes / Rating: R

Director: Ben Affleck / Writers: Dennis Lehane (novel); Ben Affleck (screenplay)

Cast: Ben Affleck (Joe Coughlin), Elle Fanning (Loretta Figgis), Remo Girone (Maso Pescatore), Brendan Gleeson (Thomas Coughlin), Robert Glenister (Albert White), Matthew Maher (RD Pruitt), Chris Messina (Dion Bartolo), Sienna Miller (Emma Gould), Miguel J. Pimentel (Esteban Suarez), Zoe Saldana (Graciela), Chris Cooper (Chief Ray Figgis), Titus Welliver (Tim Hickey), Max Casella (Digger Pescatore), Christian Clemenson (Ritz Investor), JD Evermore (Virgil Beauregard), Clark Gregg (Calvin Bondurant), Anthony Michael Hall (Gary L. Smith), Chris Sullivan (Brennan Loomis), Benjamin Ciaramello (Paulo Bartolo), Derek Mears (Donnie Gishler)

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Ben Affleck drew criticism repeatedly in 2016 for the films Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Suicide Squad, and The Accountant. On those,
all of which enjoyed some degree of commercial success, Affleck could pass the blame to his directors and writers, for he was only acting in them. Live by Night, however, employs Affleck as producer, director, lone screenwriter, and star. When this one gets attacked by critics (and as an awards-qualifying late December limited release, it already has), the leading man cannot expect to receive any less than the lion's share of the blame.

Affleck has had greater success as a director than as a star. His first two directorial credits -- 2007's Gone Baby Gone starring his brother Casey and 2010's The Town starring himself -- received widespread acclaim. His third, Argo (2012), won the industry's highest honor, the Oscar for Best Picture, defying history to do so with its helmer surprisingly unnominated for the Best Director award.

Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck) falls for Graciela (Zoe Saldana) in "Live by Night."

In Live by Night, Affleck brings a Dennis Lehane novel to the screen. Lehane's writings have lent to powerful films, not only Affleck's aforementioned debut Gone Baby Gone, but also Mystic River, The Drop, and Shutter Island. Most of those were contemporary crime dramas set in the Boston area (Drop relocated the proceedings to Brooklyn) and featuring working class types (as was the Lehane-esque The Town). In the 2012 source novel, Lehane stretched himself with a crime drama set primarily during Prohibition, the 1920s.

Affleck plays Joe Coughlin, the son of an Irish immigrant police chief (Brendan Gleeson). Joe finds himself reluctantly drawn into the gangster life after more recent immigrant Emma Gould (Sienna Miller), the girlfriend he shares with an Irish mob boss (Robert Glenister), is killed and Coughlin is sentenced to a few years in prison for the death of police officers following a heist. After serving his time, Joe gets a job working for the area's Italian mob boss (Remo Girone) that sends him down to Tampa to oversee deals with Cubans involving the sale of alcohol and the proceeds of nightclubs.

With his Italian friend Dion Bartolo (Chris Messina) by his side, Joe gets acclimated with the gangster life, agreeing to terms with the local sheriff (Chris Cooper) and forging deals with other figures, whether it's muscling out or assigning a cut of the action. The film mostly follows Joe through this criminal life, although he also falls in love with a Cuban woman (Zoe Saldana) and gets involved in the recovery of the sheriff's teenaged daughter (Elle Fanning), who gets mixed up in heroin out in Los Angeles only to return and have her strengthened Christian faith stand in the way of Joe's criminal activities.

"You guys live by day. I'mma live by night!" Ben Affleck utters the titular line only in my imagination. Lorretta Figgis (Elle Fanning) moves a church congregation with the wounds of sinful drug use on her arm.

Live by Night is not anywhere near as rich and compelling as Affleck's first three films or the four prior Lehane adaptations for that matter. Perhaps that should have been obvious when Live by Night was marketed as a January release, its awards-qualifying opening seemingly more a kind formality
than a real display of confidence or calculated strategy. Warner Bros. Pictures' little-documented string of Best Picture Oscar nominees suddenly appears to be in doubt, but if it is extended, it is much more likely to be Sully that does it than Live, which doesn't even seem to have the technical category buzz that a big studio's slick year-end period film ought to.

Judged as a January opening, Live by Night is much better than average. It's not the all-out mess that the studio's similarly timed and themed Gangster Squad was. It is about on the order of Michael Mann's middling Public Enemies, a film more impressive technically than it is dramatically. Live also earns that label, more likely to catch your eye with its big colorful suits, gunfire sounds, stately production design, and sometimes sumptuous cinematography than with the acting and characterization of Affleck and company.

It shows occasional promise as a drama, with its monologues on morality and the afterlife. But Affleck never wins you over with his protagonist nor gets you to sympathize with any one of the plot lines he treads, from business endeavors to marriage to revenge. It all looks pretty good and has a luster that you could never get from a less skilled director and a smaller budget. But it's still often a mindless diversion, a mere notch or two above the inanity that was The Accountant.

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Related Reviews:
Now in Theaters: Silence Hidden Figures La La Land Manchester by the Sea Patriots Day A Monster Calls 20th Century Women Elle Rogue One
Written and Directed by Ben Affleck: Argo Gone Baby Gone | Adapted from Dennis Lehane: The Drop
Ben Affleck: The Accountant Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice Suicide Squad Gone Girl The Company Men
Chris Messina: Ruby Sparks Julie & Julia Away We Go | Zoe Saldana: Guardians of the Galaxy The Words
Chris Cooper: Demolition August: Osage County | Elle Fanning: The Neon Demon Maleficent
Sienna Miller: American Sniper Burnt | Gangsters: Dick Tracy Gangster Squad Killing Them Softly Scarface Black Mass

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Reviewed January 10, 2017.

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