Film Review: Live By Night

Ben Affleck’s Live By Night evokes some classic gangster tropes. Yet the film distinguishes itself with its projection of contemporary preoccupations.

In Prohibition-era Boston, Joe Coughlin is a thief who avoids working for the gangsters that run the city. After a spell away, Joe becomes part of the world he once avoided, enjoying the spoils of being an outlaw…

Based on Dennis Lahane’s novel, Live By Night explores crime, power, and society during the era of Prohibition. Directed by Ben Affleck, who also stars and wrote the screenplay, it is essentially a gangster film. The traits are clear; the morality of the lifestyle, the intoxication of wealth and power, the rise in stature for the protagonist and the subsequent price for this. Nevertheless, Affleck hoodwinks viewers expecting a by-the-numbers gangster movies. Whilst the tropes are there, the film goes beyond this.

Live By Night‘s narrative focuses on a young man who eschews his police captain father’s lawfulness for a life of crime. It is about a character who rises to the top, and the drawbacks that are a result of his success. However, Live By Night operates on another level. The film features power as a key dynamic. Protagonist Coughlin realises what he is up against as an outsider. This theme is viewed through the prism of race and nationality. It is unusual for race to take a prominent role in this genre, and this becomes a dominant feature in the second half of the film. Moreover the issue of privilege is explored, with Affleck delivering a modern take on the issue despite the period setting. One scene in particular feels like a contemporary swipe at a particular target.

Cinematography and art direction offers a sepia-like haze to the film’s visuals. Costumes and styling are great. Affleck and Zoe Saldana’s performances are sufficient, and allow for more memorable turns from Elle Fanning and Chris Cooper. The film’s narration can be a bit overbearing at times, but the story pans out rather well.

Live By Night is Ben Affleck’s stab at the gangster genre. Whilst it does not quite match his earlier directorial efforts, the film does have something to say.