Live by Night: movie review

 

I first saw the trailer for this movie in the theater. The cars, the suits, the guns, the explosions my pulse quickened. Despite my aversion to Ben Affleck, how could I turn down a gangster flick? I couldn’t. I waited for over a month for its release and got up entirely too early after working a night shift to go see it.

Big umbrella opinion: I liked it. It’s not Oscar material or anything although it equipped several talented actors. However, the trailer is a bit misleading. The car chase action scenes shown throughout the trailer are from THE ONE CAR CHASE that takes place in the beginning of the film. The explosions had their own segment and were shown simply to build atmosphere and catch the viewer up with what life was like in the middle of a gang “war”. Outside of that it seemed like a pretty tame war. It isn’t until near the film’s conclusion that you get a real blood bath shoot out. Scenes from that were also used in the trailer, but the film fell short on my expectations. They didn’t really live by night very much, did they?

The beginning segment is a lot of explaining, narration, short scenes. A well known rule in writing is show, don’t tell, but there was a lot of telling going on. Affleck’s character, Joe Coughlin, came back from the war not wanting to follow orders ever again. He proceeds to break rules, but is convinced he’s not a gangster. The loss of his girl supposedly lights the fire of vengeance in his belly. Anger we never really see in Affleck’s performance. Most of the film he has a faraway, worried look that makes me think he realized he’s eaten a bad batch of pasta with clam sauce. As his digestion revolts, he’s wondering how far the closest bathroom is. His clothing also seemed oddly ill-fitting as if he took them out of his father’s closet.

In order to get revenge, he begins to do what? FOLLOW ORDERS. He goes to Florida and new budding love heals him. This love interest played by Zoe Saldana is the classic mistake of a woman that falls in love with a gangster then complains that he’s a gangster. Oh please! The overall storyline was a bit disjointed. As if there is a moral they’re trying to tell, but it’s as coherent as a manly man trying to describe his feelings for the first time. Perhaps it was about rule breaking, or self-denial, or maybe repentance or even hope in our children, I’m not sure.

On a positive note, the movie succeeded in a lush environment and period sets, which was all done well. They really spent time on authenticity. It will take many more viewings before someone points out a mistake, which almost always happens with every film. The casting was well done, although it felt like there were a lot of small roles. Certain characters seemed important to the business that Joe Coughlin ran, but they were shoved into the background only to pop up to deliver pivotal information or deliver a joke that pans because there wasn’t any lead up (cue rim shot). Or even introduce themselves to Coughlin with a mini bio, to again tell the viewer who this character is. This explanation may have been present in the book, not as dialogue, but as descriptor. I know I’ve never introduced myself and followed with a recap of how I got to where I am today. These are talented people, give them the scene time to make us believe.

Speaking of scene time as I sat watching the closing credits, I was surprised to see the name of Titus Welliver, who I was a fan of in Deadwood and Sons of Anarchy. I did a little research to find out that his character was a mentor to Joe Coughlin, but I am still baffled because I do not recall ever seeing him or hearing the character named mentioned. Does anybody else know what happened? Did I miss something? Was he left on the cutting room floor? I’m baffled.

My advice for Affleck: have some outside eyes on the script, there were definitely some flow issues. You had the pieces, the resources, but the story wasn’t translated right. I also feel obligated to suggest picking leading man or director. How can you give either job 100% effort when you have to do both? Perhaps take a page from Quentin Tarantino or Jon Favreau and stick to small scenes, cameos, or at most a supporting character. I would also like to see Affleck diversify the roles he does play. Perhaps someone that is not Irish, or Bostonian, or any average joe who worked his way from the bottom to the top. There’s the old phrase “write what you know”, but that doesn’t mean you can only act by ‘who you are.’ The human condition is feeling emotion. Simplify every action to it’s basic emotion, add the character’s motivation and research, research, research. Sometimes I see that glimmer in Affleck that everyone else claims is there, but I want to see him really stretch his acting muscles. Perhaps he could pick up some tips from some of the big names that surround him.

Conclusion: I enjoyed it, because I really like gangster and Prohibition movies. I’ll probably add it to my collection for moments when I can’t stand modern culture and cocoon myself with a 1920’s binge session. The storyline could have been translated better and there could have been more action.

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