Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Live By Night (2017) - Movie Review

The plot: Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck) is a gangster in Prohibition-era America. Against the wishes of his police captain father Thomas (Brendan Gleeson), he gets involved in a gang war brewing in Boston between the Irish Gang, led by Albert White (Robert Glenister), and the Italian Mafia, led by Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone). As he becomes more embroiled in criminal life, and opens himself up to doing some favours for Pescatore, he eventually gets given an opportunity in Tampa, Florida that he grabs with both hands. However, it seems that his days at the top are numbered, as a series of obstacles present themselves that may prove too difficult for the nicest gangster in town.

Affleck is not only our lead but also the film’s writer, director and co-producer. This is his passion project, not that you would pick up on that just from his performance. Aside from his constantly-fluctuating attempts at a Boston accent, he keeps trying for quiet menace but it comes across more like apathy. Girone and Glenister are decent as two very hard-boiled criminal ringleaders, probably the only people here who comes across as anything genuine. Sienna Miller as White’s daughter does well with the Irish accent, and if she was in more of the film, it might have turned out just a little bit better. She has a lot more screen presence than Zoe Saldana as what is effectively her replacement, who never manages to rise above her lukewarm dialogue.
Chris Messina as Joe’s right-hand man is a good match-up with Affleck, although given how much he underperforms here, that might be more of an insult than praise. Chris Cooper as the Tampa police chief gets the few really dramatic moments to himself, and he does quite well with them, and Elle Fanning as his daughter is easily the best thing here. She manages to imbue her struggling-actor-turned-brimstone-preacher character with not only the right sense of authority to make the words stick, but that ability in the role helps highlight how much that role on its own add to this film’s subtext.

This is the first film Affleck has written on his own; hell, this is the first time in eight years that he’s even touched a screenplay, and even then, he wasn’t the only one who had fingerprints on it. That lack of experience in going it alone is painfully evident in the finished product, because the dialogue is incredibly dire. It feels less like we’re watching criminals trying to size each other up and more like a spoof movie script got picked up by accident before shooting started. If you have ever seen a comedian put on a fake New York gangster accent, chances are that you have heard some of the quotes found here before. It’s a whole lot of “don’t get me started”, “this city will chew you up and spit you out”, “we would appreciate it if you would consider our offer”; paraphrasing here but, seriously, this is not what should be coming out of a film that is actually taking itself seriously.
To make things worse, all of this dialogue exists to serve a story that is incredibly generic. It’s the rise and fall of a gangster, hitting all the expected double-crossing and mass shoot-out beats you would expect from such a premise, and there’s this near-constant feeling that it could be more than what it is. Instead, what we end up with is a rather bland depiction of a story that is far too familiar with most audiences nowadays.

The reason that feeling of unrealised potential is there is because, honestly, there is more to this than the tribulations of a bootlegger. The Prohibition era is a popular setting for tales of organised crime, but not many of them really dig into the mechanics of that setting. Even though Affleck falters in translating it to the screen, there’s a definite sense that he chose this source material for a reason, and every so often, that reason presents itself. The main conceit of this film is how it frames Joe’s character: He defied his peacekeeping father and became a crook, but he may be too nice of a person to thrive in that industry. That on its own, as far as how Affleck depicts it, isn’t too compelling. However, when put against the people trying to stop him, which range from the Church to the KKK, it gives rise to something rather interesting.
This is where Fanning’s preacher character comes into the picture, and it’s through her that we get a better sense of why that time in American history was the way it was. The Protestant slippery-slope approach to morality, the type that thinks alcohol consumption and bestiality are somehow comparable in terms of mortal sin, is what drove Prohibition into action in the first place. Even though the 21st Amendment was amended, the mindset behind it is still alive and well today. Hell, going through the same-sex marriage debate in Australia for most of the year, a lot of similar arguments concerning religious, racial and personal persecution have been made. This is incredibly rich stuff, the kind of material that could give some serious muscle to your traditional gangster flick. But unfortunately, Affleck appears far more comfortable dealing in the same-old same-old rather than really making use of what he’s got.

All in all, this is incredibly muddled and it shows that Ben Affleck probably should have brought someone else in to help him out. The decent approach to action scenes isn’t enough to make the larger story feel exciting, the great choice in source material isn’t enough to make up for the laughable dialogue, and the amazing potential of the story Affleck chose to tell isn’t enough to make up for how much of it is ultimately wasted. Elle Fanning is genuinely impressive here, to the point where I almost want to recommend it just for her, but that would be implying that the rest of this 2-hour effort is worth sitting through to get there.

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