Rotten Tomatoes fails......yet again.
I was going to go see Ben Affleck's new movie Live By Night no matter what the critics said because even without all of the Dc Extended Universe drama, I've always believed in forming my own opinion of movies before deciding to go see them. In this case, I liked the trailers I saw, I like the cast in general and I'm a big fan of Affleck's last few movies including The Town and Argo which he also directed and starred in, and Gone Girl which he starred in, directed by David Fincher. The fact that Live By Night was also a Prohibition-era gangster piece was just another bonus for me as I enjoy gangster movies.
So when I saw that Rotten Tomatoes had given it a 33 percent rotten score from 138 critics, I figured I was almost guaranteed to enjoy the movie and sure enough, I did. Live By Night is yet another solid entry for Affleck. It's not as great as The Town or Argo, but it's definitely not a rotten movie by any means.
Based on the Dennis Lehane novel of the same name, Live By Night is the tale of Joe Coughlin, a man who knows the criminal underworld well and climbs the ladder of organized crime as the son of a prominent Boston police captain. He gets on the wrong end of an Irish gangster, goes to work for his Italian rival and ends up cornering the rum market in Ybor City, Tampa, Florida.
So right off the bat, I can see where a lot of the critics and viewers completely misinterpreted this film. American cinema has a wealth of classic gangster movies at its disposal, so many that it really is a major subgenre of American film. Everything from The Godfather, to Once Upon a Time in America, to Goodfellas and countless others. In each of those movies, the main character is or becomes a gangster, even if they don't want to be one at first and that's what separates Live By Night from the others right off the bat. Affleck's Joe Coughlin doesn't want to be a gangster and he actively avoids violence if he possibly can. He knows it's part of the business, but it's not one that he seeks out first as he indicates his belief in the movie that "powerful men don't have to be cruel."
So while you have your requisite gunfights and violence that would be required in almost any gangster movie, Live By Night is not filled with it by any means and lot of the movie focuses on the business aspect and the mindsets of everyone involved, starting with Coughlin. It's clear to me that the critics immediately saw that as a demerit and pretty much admitted that in their reviews:
Now, let's address that last criticism about Live By Night being a "paint-by-numbers gangster drama." That to me screams someone that went into the movie expecting The Godfather and didn't get it, so he calls it mediocre. The reality is that Live By Night has a completely different focus, where instead of focusing on the crime boss of an underworld it focuses on the little fish that make the underworld work, and it's not just Coughlin that is profiled here. There's a ton of allegories with regard to Irish, Italian, Black and Cuban workers that do all the hard labor in the name of their leaders, only to be disrespected not only by them but by southern whites who don't want them there in the first place. Indeed, race becomes a major factor in the movie as the KKK itself gets involved in Coughlin's pursuit of a major casino he wants to build in Florida that would add gambling to his million-dollar rum empire.
Affleck's supporting cast really does a great job of making this a "different" gangster movie, starting with Coughlin's right-hand man Dion Bartolo, played by Chris Messina. Unlike other extremely loyal lieutenants in mob movies, Messina's Bartolo is not hotheaded, not looking to be in charge and not an idiot. He is brutal at times and openly displays the cruelty or suggests using the cruelty that Coughlin wants to avoid, but at no point in the movie does he become that liability that we have seen played out so much in so many gangster movies. He also knows and understands the business enough to sit down at all of the tables that Coughlin sits at, talking to all of the same businessmen. It's fantastic to see, especially when you get a glimpse of the standard mob lieutenant trope in the movie and realize just how much better Messina's character really is. He's working class, just like Coughlin but he's no fool and he doesn't need to be kept out of anything or brought up to speed on what is happening. It's refreshing, and Messina is phenomenal in the role.
Sienna Miller and Zoe Saldana play the parts of Affleck's "love interest" at different points of the movie, Miller playing the Irish gun moll Emma Gould and Saldana playing the Cuban businesswoman and humanitarian Graciela Corrales. The distinction between the two women is important as they both symbolize different times in Coughlin's life and openly displays his evolution as a character from the start of the movie to the end of it. Miller and Saldana both play their characters well and are strong polar opposites of each other, as they should be for the structure of the movie.
Veteran character actor Chris Cooper and actress Elle Fanning are the dark horses of this movie as Police Chief Irving Figgis and his daughter Loretta. They are the ones that expertly call attention to the morality of the film and play up all of the necessary Christian and religious undertones to what the criminal underworld is doing and how it is affecting the coastline. Cooper does what he does best in another role that feels like it's tailored to his abilities and Fanning continues to assert herself as one of the more dynamic young actresses in Hollywood.
If you're a fan of Affleck's other directorial films, you'll notice his affinity for motion shots of course, and they are as fluid and well composed as you could hope for what he does. There's nothing static or clunky about the presentation of the movie, it's a a very cohesive piece of cinematography and editing. There are maybe one too many times that he and Messina sit down at desks in succession before another action sequence occurs, but again that speaks to the unconventional nature of the movie itself and how different it is from most other gangster movies.
Harry Gregson-Williams, who expertly scored The Martian for Ridley Scott paints a great atmospheric picture yet again with the score for Live By Night, putting together music that doesn't ever invade the movie but adds just enough to give it the low-level feel of Coughlin and his men as they play up the working class angle of the story. There's plenty of period appropriate music for the time as well, especially the Florida parts with a heavy Latin influence.
The bottom line is that Live By Night is not your typically classic gangster movie and there's nothing wrong with that. In fact, it's refreshing to see one that does its best to avoid the classic tropes we've come to expect in a period gangster movie. There are some that are still there and can't be helped as a result of the story and setting, but there's enough in the movie to keep it from descending into a standard territory, and at a time where "formulaic" filmmaking is receiving all the praise in the world, it's good to see someone like Affleck remaining unconventional, even at the expense of the critics who misinterpret his work.
Once again, I recommend this Affleck movie and I eagerly await his next directorial effort......WHENEVER he is ready to release it.