Movie review: Ben Affleck pays more attention to sets than characters in Live By Night

Ben Affleck stars as a mobster and Sienna Miller is his former love in Live By Night.
Ben Affleck stars as a mobster and Sienna Miller is his former love in Live By Night.PHOTO: WARNER BROS

REVIEW / CRIME DRAMA

LIVE BY NIGHT (M18)

129 minutes/Opens tomorrow/2.5/5 stars

The story: Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck) comes home to Boston after serving in the Great War. Embittered by his experience as a soldier, he turns to crime, rising to gang leader. He goes to Florida, where he meets Graciela (Zoe Saldana), whose family runs rum from Cuba. With her, he finds the solace he could not with earlier love Emma (Sienna Miller), the mistress of gang boss Albert White (Robert Glenister). John Lui

Rum-runners, cops, politicians and preachers mingle in a picturesque but aimless fashion in this tale of upward mobility in the criminal set.

Affleck, in adapting Dennis Lehane's novel, appears to be more interested in the background than the foreground - characters, situations and dialogue feel half- complete, while locales and social milieus look more developed.

 

It is too bad, then, that these observations appear at random, lacking a unifying idea. It all feels more like an exercise in cultural anthropology than storytelling.

In a voiceover, the audience is told that Affleck's Coughlin comes home from the Great War a hardened, cynical man, which the actordirector externalises by having no expression at all for much of the movie.

Criminals with defensive postures are a cinema staple. But it is poor form to state that fact upfront as an excuse for why a good man would turn to crime, then never address it again or even contradict it - Coughlin readily leaps into two romances, with Emma (Miller) and Graciela (Saldana).

Contrast this with Robert De Niro's bank robber in Heat (1995), who talks cynically and acts accordingly.

De Niro's character comes to love a woman very reluctantly, knowing that affairs are at best pointless or, worse, dangerous.

Affleck the director tries his best to infuse a glamorous Latin lushness into his frames and, for the most part, the atmospherics work, but sultriness is a poor substitute for dramatic tension.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 25, 2017, with the headline 'Latin lushness but lacking in tension'. Print Edition | Subscribe