Friday, February 10, 2017

Film Review: Live By Night

Sexuality/Nudity Mature 
Violence Mature
Vulgarity Mature
Anti-Catholic Philosophy Mature

I have been a big believer in Ben Affleck and an enthusiastic supporter of the Ben-essaince.  Ever since Gone, Baby, Gone, Affleck has shown more and more promise as a director and as an actor, as seen in his follow-ups The Town and Argo.

That is why Live By Night is a disappointment.

Set in post WWI, Prohibition era Boston, Affleck stars as Joe Coughlin, a two-bit hood how tries to stay clear of getting absorbed by the local mobs.  He is in a tense circumstance as he romances Emma (Sienna Miller) the girlfriend of the head of the Irish Mob Albert White (Robert Glenister) and friction with Joe's police chief father Thomas (Brenden Gleeson).  Things spiral out of control and Joe eventually goes down to Florida where he carves out a mini-empire with his friend Dion (Chris Messina) and a partniship with the Cuban rum-runners Miguel (Esteban Suarez) and Graciela (Zoe Saldana).  Things get even more complicated when Joe runs afoul of the KKK and the local Chief of Police (Chris Cooper) and his troubled daughter Loretta (Elle Fanning).

If that plot sounds complicated, it is.

The problem isn't the complexity, but that it seems needlessly muddled.  The movie spends way too much time Boston before heading to Florida.  The background on the character is nice, but all of it seems like a prelude to a movie that hasn't yet begun.

This is an example of a movie where the plot gets in the way of the story.  That is a shame because there is actually quite a lot here that is interesting to explore.  Joe is like Vito from the Godfather: he wants to make his own rules but wants to keep a sense of honor.  He fancies himself as no-nonsense rogue rather than a villain.  He runs alcohol and supports gambling, but he refuses to engage in the heroin trade or prostitution.

As a Catholic, I have always appreciated Affleck's religious allusions and moral quandaries in his films.  He really likes to explore the deeper questions of good and evil in mature ways.  (Although that one abortion line in Argo still bothers the crap out of me).  He tries to do the same thing here in Live By Night with mixed results.

The most fascinating dynamic I found was between Joe and Loretta.  Without giving too much away, Loretta goes through a spiritual revival which makes her sway public opinion against Joe's interests.  Joe goes to try and talk to her, bribe her, and reason with her to get her to soften her tone.  What I found so fascinating about this scene was that Affleck, both in his direction and performance, shows that Joe honestly believes that Loretta's crusade is misguided and goes against common sense.  And yet, he is filled with such admiration for her faith and goodness that he cannot bring himself to condemn her.  Affleck as a writer/director could have taken the easy way out and filmed her simply as a superstitious hick (as her followers seem to be).  But it was a bit refreshing to see admiration for religious conviction and virtue even when it was at odds with the main character's beliefs.  And while the film is sympathetic to Joe, it never lets him off the hook for his vice.

But not all scenes are this complex and rich.  Too often the characters are painted with to simple and broad brushstrokes.  Loretta's father is reduced to simple madness.  Dion is a not-so-bright buddy.  The KKK troublemaker (Mattthew Maher) is pure inbred hillbilly.  Saldana brings a sophisticated class her character, but we never get much deeper than someone who also represents a different kind of virtue to Joe.

Another problem is something that historical movies tend to have.  Instead of simply presenting life and actions of the day, the movie constantly and not-so-subtly virtue-signals to current political issues of race, poverty, immigration, and legalization of contraband.  If the movie had more confidence in itself, it would trust the viewer to draw its own conclusions.  But when the main character talks about how one day there will be a political upheaval that sounds like rhetoric from recent election campaigns, it only serves to take you out of the movie.

The performances are mostly good, even with these writing deficits.  Fanning's performance is particularly interesting.  When she is preaching, I thought she was going too over-the-top.  But when the layers were pealed back, we could see how her character was using her rhetorical skills in different situations.  Affleck is also as good as always, showing the conflict of a man drawn to the light but comfortable in the shadows.  He wants love but lives in sin.  He admires faith but refuses to repent.  He desires peace but lives violence.  Rather than repel us with this hypocrisy, Affleck helps us see our own struggle between our sinful and saintly natures.

Visually, Live By Night is an excellent film.  He captures the feel for the time and both Boston and Florida feel like they could be different countries in terms of color and tone.  The action sequences are brutal and bold.  With the exception of one incredibly odd and uncomfortable single-take shot towards the end, Affleck demonstrates his ability to tell a story visually.

My hope is that Live By Night is merely a minor stumble to the continuing upward trajectory of Affleck's career.

But it is a stumble, nonetheless.

2.5 out of 5 stars.

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