With three solid successes behind him as a director, Ben Affleck continues to forge a career — behind the camera at least — that strives for the kind of quality that only dribbles out of major studios once or twice a year. With The Town, his Oscar-winning Best Picture Argo, and his first helming effort Gone Baby Gone, Affleck has established himself in the mode of an Eastwood or Redford — the kind of actor who can easily move into the director’s chair without missing a beat, and bring a level of class to whatever movie he chooses to make.
He has done that again with Live By Night, an ode to the great gangster movies of the 1930s and ’40s that also manages to stand on its own. It is the kind of film you don’t see much anymore, a throwback and a real movie-lover’s dream especially if you long for the days when Cagney and Robinson ruled this particular roost at Warner Bros. It is entirely appropriate that Warners is the studio behind this outing, which also has a feel for the more auteurish films in this genre prevalent in the ’60s and ’70s, a la Bonnie And Clyde, another Warners release. If it doesn’t quite hit those levels, or later entries in the genre like Goodfellas, The Departed and the holy grail The Godfather, it still is an admirable and successful effort.
Going back to the well with Gone Baby Gone author Dennis Lehane, Affleck has adapted Lehane’s novel about a ruthless gangster with a moral center (if that’s possible in that brutal trade). Affleck, also an Oscar winner as a writer for 1997’s Good Will Hunting, has effectively lifted Lehane’s work, set in the early ’30s, to a big-scale movie that, as I say in my video review above, is not only exciting but also stunning to look at thanks to a first-rate, top-of-the-line production team.
It also happens to be beautifully acted right down the line. Casting himself in the lead, Affleck plays World War I vet Joe Coughlin, son of Boston’s Police Deputy Superintendent (Brendan Gleeson, very fine as usual), who finds himself on the other side of the law. Yet he is not your typical screen gangster as he also exhibits a strong morality of sorts, with heart. Of course, he also has guns, and as he showed earlier in the fall release The Accountant, Affleck likes shooting things up, and there’s plenty of that here as well as romance. Amid a relationship with gangster moll Emma Gould (a colorful Sienna Miller) while trying to exist in a town where there is a mob war between the Italians and the Irish, Joe finds himself landing in prison. When he gets out he switches to the rum trade in a move to Tampa, where he hooks up with more baddies and becomes romantically involved with Graciela (Zoe Saldana), who among other attributes has strong connections to the molasses needed for producing rum in the Prohibition era.
Chris Messina, in a change of pace and adding 40 pounds, expertly plays Joe’s trusted right-hand man Dion. There’s impressive work as well from Elle Fanning, continuing to grow up before our eyes as Loretta Figgis, daughter of the Tampa police chief (Chris Cooper). She’s intriguing in her limited screen time and has one killer scene with Affleck that reps her best work yet. Robert Glenister and Remo Girone fit the bill as believable gangster types.
Affleck has made a superb film out of his clear passion for this well-worn genre, and it is proven by the team he got to make it with him. Deserving as many accolades as the cast is Robert Richardson’s cinematography; Jess Conchor’s production design; and the well-paced editing of William Goldenberg, who won an Oscar for Affleck’s Argo. Splendid costume design by Jacqueline West and a flavorful score by Harry Gregson Williams also add to the murderers’ row of behind-the-scenes talent Affleck has meticulously assembled.
Producers in addition to Affleck are Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Todd, and Jennifer Davisson Killoran. Warner Bros releases it in select theaters Christmas Day and wide on January 13.
Do you plan to see Live By Night? Let us know what you think.
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