Dennis Lehane novels lend themselves to movie adaptations. Not only are the subjects provocative, but his knack for capturing Bostian blue-collar dialogue give a kind of refined snap that alleviate the heavy subject matter. Clint Eastwood (Mystic River, 2003), Ben Affleck (Gone Baby Gone, 2007) and even Martin Scorsese (Shutter Island, 2010) have benefited from Lehane's originals. Since Affleck's feature debut, the star with the matinee looks has proven himself to be a capable helmer. Following the celebrated Argo Affleck returns to both Lehane and his home town ( at least to begin ) with Live By Night. A taught prohibition-era tale with touches of excellence.
Comparisons are unavoidable when it comes to 1920's set gangster movies. De Palma's Untouchables brought a touch of class in it's triumphant band of men willing to give it all, while the Coens skewed the tropes in Miller's Crossing. So rather than rally against the expectations, Live By Night satisfyingly embraces the expectations and peppers the proceedings with new additions. There's heists, heart-pounding car chases and stark jail time all before the first act closes and we up-sticks to Florida. However, this is still a gangster film, so there's still the obligatory shootings, stabbings and offers that you can't refuse from formidable mob bosses. This does mean that genre cliches can hinder the proceedings, and despite Affleck's best efforts to steer away from familiar tropes some are unavoidable.
That being said, from the opening heist, Live By Night exudes quality. While this is in no small part to Robert Richardson's photography, there's a lot of time taken to place us firmly in the setting. More importantly, for a movie that laments on how our true nature and deeds will always catch up with us, the suggestions are more touchstones than over-worthy reminders of themes. At one point, during a sepia-tonned lull in Emma and Joe's affair, there's the perfect opportunity for Emma to blurt out the film's title. You'll grimace in your expectation of the line, but thankfully it doesn't manifest. Other directors would seize the opportunity for a line to use in the trailer, yet Affleck tastefully lets the moment pass. It's this confidence, to allow the film room to breath, that raises Live By Night above most well-tailored but hollow gangster flicks.
Some audience members may have some difficulty when the tale sprawls to Florida and Joe creates his rum empire. While it's not a reset, it can feel like the needle skipped a little in the rhythm we're used to. It's not a usual for a crime caper to switch location and even though it's jarring, the minimal exposition gets us up to speed on the politics of Ybor City and what we're up against. It's a thrilling ride from there and still it plays with our expectations. Even though the obvious mish-mash of cultures in Tampa give a few new flavors the obstacles are intruiging and unexpected.
Live By Night may not be the strongest output from Affleck, but with an impressive cast firing on all cylinders and sumptuous visuals there's enough here to elevate this saga above most shamrocks and shenanigans.
4* - Guntouchables