A story set in the Prohibition Era and centered around a group of individuals and their dealings in the world of organized crime.
When Matt Damon and Ben Affleck burst onto the scene back in 1997 with “Good Will Hunting,” it was very obvious that Damon was the stronger actor. Even today, taking into consideration that Affleck has starred in his fair share of good dramas, “Gone Girl,” “Argo,” and “The Town,” it is quite evident that his strong suit has become directing. With “Gone Baby Gone,” “The Town,” “Argo,” and now “Live by Night,” he has proven himself very resourceful behind the camera. Like Eastwood, Redford, and Costner before him, he seems to have successfully mastered the transition from being in front of the camera, to being behind it, and also being able to separate Ben Affleck the actor, from Ben Affleck the director. And again, like his predecessors, he seems more comfortable in front of the camera while also operating behind it. With his latest endeavor, “Live by Night,” based on the book by Dennis Lehane, he tackles mobsters, prohibition, the Ku Klux Klan, and the sweltering Miami heat, and does so with bravado. Naturally, because of the movie’s subject matter, Affleck is going to be compared (unfairly?) to Coppola and Scorsese, masters of this particular genre, who have produced some of the finest mob-related dramas of all time but even they have moved on to tackle other subject matters. With Affleck showing a continuous and successive strong presence behind the camera, “Live by Night” is a sprawling epic, filled with wonderful performances, aided by some truly spectacular cinematography of 1920s Boston and Miami.
The movie begins in 1920s Boston in a monotone voiceover, courtesy of Affleck’s Joe Coughlin, who informs us that he is a World War I veteran, who after returning home, was unable to settle down and turned to a life of crime. While no gangster, he and two associates rob small-time hoodlums and banks, steering clear of the major players in town, Albert White (Robert Glenister), the man in charge of the Irish mob, and Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone), White’s rival and the head of the Italian mafia. After a botched bank robbery, Joe, and his associates escape but are quickly followed by the police, where his two friends kill several police officers in the ensuing chaos. Joe barely manages to escape with his life and when he returns to town to pick up his girlfriend Emma (Sienna Miller), they plan to head out west to California to start a new life together but Albert White intervenes. We discover that Emma is actually White’s girlfriend and once he was made aware that she and Joe were sleeping together behind his back, he tries to have him killed but Joe’s father, Thomas (Brendan Gleeson), a Boston police captain, intercedes, and Joe ends up in prison instead, serving three years for his part in the bank robbery. Upon his release, he discovers that his father has passed away and that Emma’s car went off a cliff into the Atlantic and drowned, courtesy of White. Hellbent on revenge, Joe agrees to work for Pescatore in the small town of Ybor City, Florida, where White has a stranglehold on Pescatore’s rum empire. Along with an old friend and associate, Dion (Chris Messina), the two men establish themselves into the community and when they are accepted by the locals, Pescatore informs him to start a casino and bring drugs into the area.
Through a Cuban associate, Joe meets the beautiful and alluring Graciela (Zoe Saldana), and eventually they get married. With business booming, and rum flowing, things couldn’t be any better but when Joe and Dion find out that Pescatore is on his way down to Miami, and that he has called them into a meeting, both men know that something is up. Instead of running away like cowards though, Joe insists that they go ahead with the meeting, keeping their heads held high, after all, both men single-handedly expanded Pescatore’s business exponentially. As both men make their way to the meeting place at a hotel, they discover that Pescatore and White have combined their resources, and no longer have a need for them. But just when it looks like they will finally meet their maker, the tables are turned when Joe’s men unexpectedly turn up, forcing Pescatore and White to retreat into a room, with no possible way out.
In a story like this, the lines between good and bad are blurred. While Joe is no hardened gangster, and he despises violence, after everything he witnessed in the war, given his current situation, when it is required, and there is no alternative, he will do what needs to be done. If he has to pull the trigger, he will, but only after exhaustive conversation with the person in question, proves futile. “Live by Night” immediately brings to mind, Michael Corleone in “The Godfather” trilogy. After having served in World War II as a Marine, when he returns home, he is very reluctant to join his family’s business but by the end of the story, he has taken control of the family. In many ways, “Live by Night” could almost be seen as “The Godfather” in an alternate universe, instead of becoming what he most despises, he chooses to walk away with his family in tow, handing total control of everything over to someone else. But even after the fact, as one character in the film declares, “your past will always catch up with you.”
“Live by Night” is a captivating drama that exudes atmosphere, bolstered by a slow-burning ambiance. Affleck wisely chooses to forego the loathsome handheld camera so prevalent in many of today’s movies, instead, he shoots his film utilizing magnificent anamorphic widescreen, accompanied, at times, by beautifully composed tracking shots, moving ever so slowly in on their subjects, allowing you to see every bead of sweat as it runs down their perspiring face. While the movie is slow-moving, it is never boring. There is so much to see on display here, physically and emotionally, your eyes will constantly be kept busy. “Live by Night” is an acquired taste, and while it will not be to everyone’s liking, there’s no arguing that Affleck has crafted one of the most beautiful-looking movies to come out of Hollywood in some time.
Available on Blu-ray Tuesday, March 21st