In a landscape where every second film released continues, sets up or reboots a franchise – there is something oddly refreshing about a movie that requires no prior knowledge or investment outside of the two hours of viewing. Ben Affleck’s newest feature, Live by Night, is the epitome of a standalone crime thriller, with rich imagery and an incredibly capable cast. However, in remaining coy and uncertain about how to handle its ties to the historical conflicts of the prohibition era, Live by Night risks detaching itself from achieving anything of real substance.
Of course one of the major talking points of the film’s release is Ben Affleck and his three dimensional role as screenwriter, director and leading man. As a director Affleck asserts his strengths, living up to the standard his previous accomplishments set by Argo and The Town. Live by Night is a visual masterpiece that reeks not only of creativity, but a striking understanding of how to impress audiences with even the blandest of scenes. Affleck proves his worth further in the stylised chaos of the larger action scenes – and yes the oxymoron is intentional. Unlike the graphic viciousness of open war, there is something incredibly polished about gangster culture in the prohibition era that Affleck nails. It is when we turn to Affleck’s role as a screenwriter that things begin to distort.
There is a difference from being unpredictable and lost. Unfortunately for Affleck both the scale of the narrative and the flippant environment leaves decent portions of the film fitting the latter description. The main issue is that the film has no stability in deciding what it actually wants to be about. What starts off as an epic tale of crime, prejudice, and redemption quickly loses its footing and instead becomes a story of revenge and corruption. With a slight pit stop cataloguing the obscenity of the American Dream, the conflicts surrounding the Ku Klux Klan and the end of the prohibition era, the film ultimately leaves the audience with a somewhat forced message about justice and fate – and how we are constantly held accountable for our wrongdoings.
Supporting Affleck in his leading role is an array of experienced as well as budding talents that each impress even when presented with somewhat limited screen time. Despite a list of stunning performances by Brenden Gleeson, Chris Messina and Chris Cooper – it really is the female actors and characters who steal the spotlight throughout the film with Zoe Saldana, Sienna Miller and Elle Fanning each making incredibly memorable impressions on both the narrative and the audience. Also impressive, is how rounded and powerful each of the female characters are – which, though, in reality should be more of a benchmark than an achievement, is a welcome improvement in a genre that typically restricts their female roles to being purely decorative. With Miller’s ‘Emma Gold’, Live by Night flips the concept of the love interest on its head by instead tracking a dynamic that leaves Affleck’s character as the one to romanticise the spontaneity of a love affair. Saldana’s ‘Graciela’ further defines a new standard for female love interests by having a purpose separate from her interactions with Affleck’s character – with an equal role in a Cuban company she shares with her brother and a mission to set up shelters for the impoverished. Finally Elle Fanning produces a performance well beyond her years with ‘Loretta’ – a heroin addicted prostitute turned preacher who without question becomes the powerful character of the film.
Live by Night is by no means a bad film, and far from the ‘flop’ some reviews would have you believe. True there isn’t anything particularly remarkable about the film which is constantly held back by its own poor narrative structure, though that is not to say it is totally without merit – most of which attributed to Affleck’s direction. Visually striking and effortlessly maintaining a tense and menacing atmosphere – Live by Night may be quickly forgotten among the cavalcade of average films unwatched by the masses, but it will no doubt offer those who do see it a considerable amount of entertainment for at the very least: two isolated hours.