For his fourth outing behind the camera, Ben Affleck sets his sights on the gangster epic, a genre that for many is the yardstick against which directorial greatness is measured.
Returning once again to Boston (three of his four movies as director have been shot in the state where he grew up), Affleck also screen-writes, produces and stars in this adaptation of the Dennis Lehane book (the author also provided the novel for Affleck’s first film, Gone, Baby, Gone). It follows Joe Coughlin, a soldier scarred by war who turns his back on law-abiding society, instead working his way through the 1920s underworld of pimps and bootleggers.
There are nods – or perhaps they’re bows – to classic Coppola and De Palma movies, but Affleck owes his biggest debt to Scorsese. His film borrows the epic, serpentine structure of Goodfellas or The Wolf of Wall Street, the leading man pulling us through a maze of twists and sub-plots, growing older before our eyes, taking us on a journey through the American psyche (via the Italian mob and the Ku Klux Klan), addressing us directly through voiceover.
And for long stretches, Live by Night flatters to deceive that it’s more than an homage to the greats. An early car chase, peppered with the tinny pop of gunfire, rattles your nerves as much as it does the 1920s bangers; the cinematography – courtesy of regular Tarantino cohort Robert Richardson – is outstanding, every frame stained the nicotine-yellow of a pub ceiling; a supporting cast including Elle Fanning, Brendan Gleeson and Chris Cooper bring depth to the breadth.
And my, oh, my the costumes – Affleck isn’t so much dressed as upholstered, his gigantic frame billowing with boxy period suits. With his glassy eyes and absurdly large face, he looks like an enormous, sad baby dressed up in his daddy’s clothes.
The first inkling that all isn’t well are the – at first infrequent – moments when the script buckles under the weight of its own self-importance.
“This is like the bit in a game of chess when you get a pawn to the end of the board and it turns into a queen,” says Joe, with a straight face.
“At the end of the game the queen and the pawn end up in the same box,” fires back love interest Graciella.
Janky lines like this creep like vines through the film’s final third, with the script tying itself in unlikely knots to justify its central conceit: that Joe is a kingpin gangster, and also somebody we should like, even respect. In the last, jarringly mawkish sequence, the sentimental score (a weak-point throughout, in contrast to the often-brilliant diegetic music) and uncharacteristically dewey-eyed cinematography threaten to sour the entire enterprise.
There’s enough style in evidence to ensure Affleck’s card remains relatively unmarked, but there’s little here to suggest that the great gangster movies aren’t already behind us.