Film Review: Live By Night

by Keith Hill


Rated MA15+. Starring Ben Affleck, Zoe Saldana, Sienna Miller. Directed by Ben Affleck.

You could be excused for thinking that with a title like Live by Night, this film could be the next instalment in the Batfleck franchise. Instead, Ben Affleck transports his bad-guy-with-a-conscience persona from The Town back to 1920s prohibition era America.

After returning home to Boston from serving as a Marine in WWI, Joe Coughlin (Affleck) is determined that he’ll never take orders from anyone again. Rather than find work, Coughlin turns to a life of robbing banks with his pals. In the middle of a town ravaged by war between Irish and Italian organised crime gangs, Coughlin manages to keep clear of either side. That is, until he falls in love with Emma Gould (Miller), the girlfriend of Irish crime boss Albert White (Robert Glenister). Inevitably, White finds out. Having been made to look like a fool, he orders that both Joe and Emma are killed, but Joe is rescued at the last minute by his father (Brendan Gleeson), a Boston Police Department superintendent, who arrests his son for bank robbery and killing a policeman.

Joe serves his time, and swears revenge on White for Emma’s death, turning to Italian mob boss Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone) to help him. Pescatore puts Joe in charge of his rum trade down in Florida, where White has now moved his business. Joe falls for Graciela Sanchez (Saldana), whose family controls the supply of molasses from Cuba that is needed for the rum production, and over several years, Joe and his partner Dion Bartolo (Chris Messina) rise to the top of the organised crime pile. They decimate other crime gangs, manipulate the local law enforcement, and take on the KKK. Yet, as his father warned him, what you put out in the world always comes back to you in ways that you don’t expect.

This should be familiar territory for Affleck, who wrote, directed, co-produced and acted. Live by Night is Affleck’s second adaptation of a novel by crime writer Dennis Lahane, following 2007’s Gone, Baby, Gone. It’s set in Affleck’s native Boston, where he’s already directed himself playing a gangster in 2010’s The Town. Yet, for all these elements, Affleck falls short of making a classic American gangster film. There’s a lot that is done well – the costumes and sets, great mobster gun-fights, a great supporting cast. The problem seems to be Affleck himself – he doesn’t manage to pull off the scarred war-vet-turned-gangster with a conscience. His performance seems to lack the emotional investment required to make the character convincing.

From the very start of the film, Joe makes clear that he doesn’t want any part of the gangster life – he just wants his share of the American dream, and to not have to follow anyone else’s orders. But his thirst for revenge against White for Emma’s death gradually draws him into a life which he can’t escape. Even his wife, Graciela, expresses her concern that each little step he makes is gradually changing who he is, turning him into the cruel man that he wanted to avoid becoming. Though she warns him, Joe seems resigned to the fact that his fate is inescapable, no matter how much he wants it to be otherwise.

This is exactly how the Bible shows us sin working. Little steps, small concessions to sin, will gradually sear our consciences, so that what once made us feel guilty becomes normal and acceptable. That’s why the writer to the Hebrews warns Christians to take care, watching each other’s backs to avoid getting trapped in sin. We are to ‘exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin’ (Heb 3.13). The hope of the gospel is that no matter how far down the path of sin we are, there is an escape from its inevitable consequences through the death of Jesus Christ, and the promise of rest in him.

The Verdict: Live by Night boasts a great cast with commendable performances, beautiful locations, and exciting gangster shoot-outs, but comes short of the classic American gangster movie that Affleck was aiming for. 3/5

Live by Night is currently screening in Australia and the USA.

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