tue 23/07/2024

Live by Night | reviews, news & interviews

Live by Night

Live by Night

Ben Affleck's Prohibition gangster caper is less than the sum of its parts

Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck) with Sienna Miller as Emma Gould

The aura of Ben Affleck burneth bright. It only seems about 10 minutes ago that he starred in The Accountant, and now here’s Live by Night, his fourth outing as director, and the second movie on which he’s been writer, director and star.

He’ll be performing that multitasking feat again on the forthcoming solo-Batman flick The Batman, when he’s not putting in guest appearances in all the “DC extended universe” franchise spin-offs.

If a gangster movie could ever be described as a “romp”, Live by Night would be that film, as it vaults across the Prohibition years of the Twenties and Thirties. We see the story (adapted from Dennis Lehane’s novel) through the eyes of Affleck’s character Joe Coughlin, a Boston-Irish bank robber who fought in France in World War One and has returned a more jaundiced man, not inclined to take any orders from anybody. At the same time, he manages to maintain a blood-is-thicker-than-water relationship with his father Thomas, even though he’s a police superintendent who’s well aware of his son’s activities (multi-skilled Affleck behind the camera, below).

Ben Affleck behind the cameraThomas is brilliantly played by Brendan Gleeson, who threatens to eclipse everything else around him every time he gets a few seconds on screen. There’s a terrific scene when Thomas happens across his son and his girlfriend Emma (Sienna Miller, not entirely at ease playing a feisty Irish moll) in a restaurant, and promptly sets about interrogating her as bluntly as if she’s a felon down at the precinct. It’s understood in mobsterland that Emma is the property of rum-running gangster Albert White (an authentically brutal Robert Glenister), and Joe Coughlin is walking a tightrope by being seen around town with her.

White duly makes an eye-wateringly painful intervention, from which Joe is only just rescued by his dad, pulling every string he can manage including blackmailing the Boston DA. This ends the movie’s first act and sets Joe off on a new life in sunny Florida, where he’s employed by the Italian crime boss Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone) to take over the local rum rackets and make life as difficult as possible for White’s Florida operation.

It’s all fine, entertaining stuff, bookended with some rip-roaring set-pieces. There’s a scintillating car chase around Boston, all shotguns, tommy-guns and squealing tyres, like an update of any number of George Raft or Jimmy Cagney crime classics, and a climactic clash between rival gangs in a Florida mansion which has more than a hint of Al Pacino’s Scarface about it. It’s also a movie unusually rich in excellent supporting characters, including Chris Messina as Joe’s punchy Florida sidekick Dion, Chris Cooper as the pragmatic, world-weary local police chief, and a translucent Elle Fanning as the chief’s daughter Loretta, who drags herself out of heroin addiction to become a beacon of proselytising Christian righteousness.

Zoe Saldana and Ben Affleck in Live by NightYet somehow the pieces never quite gel to make this the classic it might have been. Sometimes it’s reminiscent of Affleck’s earlier film The Town, a tale of bred-in-the-bone Boston criminality that bled real blood and inflicted tangible pain, but Affleck has stymied himself by trying to make Joe Coughlin a kind of renaissance crime lord. He keeps protesting he’s not really a gangster, but he sure kills a lot of people. Meanwhile he comes on like a romantic leading man with the much-too-good-to-be-true Graciela (the impossibly lissome Zoe Saldana, pictured above with Affleck), who fears that Joe isn’t cruel enough for his job, and yearns to open a refuge for battered women and lost children.

Perhaps the hyperactive, workaholic Affleck is stretching himself too thin. Maybe he should take a hint from his brother Casey, whose heartbreaking performance in Manchester by the Sea is an object lesson in picking the right project and drilling down into its core.


There’s a scintillating car chase around Boston, all shotguns, tommy-guns and squealing tyres


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

Share this article

Add comment

Subscribe to theartsdesk.com

Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters