Tommy guns, bootleggers, fedoras and molls – Ben Affleck’s Live By Night has everything you would want from a 1930s gangster drama. This adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s novel is a love letter to Warner Bros’ golden age of gangster movies and it packs all the genres tropes into a tight two hour running time.
Affleck once again shows he’s an assured director who knows how to deliver classy, grown-up thrillers. The writer-director plays Joe Coughlin, a low level crook, caught between the Irish and Italian gangs in Boston. He moves to Florida and takes over a bootleg rum business, growing it until his past, the law and his morals collide.
Live By Night is a luscious and luminous film. It features some beautiful production design and costumes, creating a vibrant world that echoes nearly a century of wonderful gangster movies. The classic works of Howard Hawks, James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart is clearly an inspiration here but Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather and Brian De Palma’s The Untouchable are also strong influences. If you’re going to borrow, borrow from the best. An early car chase is fantastic, while a bloody shoot-out in the last act packs a powerful wallop.
Affleck is a master at showing a world of grey between the black and white. Like Gone Baby Gone and The Town, this has a strong focus on the underworld of his hometown. He knows the people and he’s able to craft broken characters who are eager to rebuild the remnants of their lives. Affleck has always been a leading man out of time, a square jawed matinee idol built for the studio system. He’s got charisma and he knows how to deliver wounded characters. He surrounds himself with an intriguing supporting cast, balancing his strong lead with Brendan Gleeson, Sienna Miller, Zoe Saldana, Elle Fanning, Chris Cooper and Chris Messina.
This crime drama weaves a lot of plot strands together and admittedly the middle act feels a touch meandering, but that’s not a problem when you’re given such rich storytelling. This is captivating stuff and it’s great to see a pulpy drama delivered with an A-list sheen. Live By Night is great movie-making – a muscular thriller from a filmmaker who understands how to pack a powerful punch. Nobody other than Affleck is making mainstream films this visceral – and I can’t wait to see what he does with The Batman.