LIVE BY NIGHT is Affleck's fourth feature length directorial effort following the impressive GONE BABY GONE, the brilliant THE TOWN and the eminent ARGO, and it reaffirms his virtuosity behind the camera. With such a solid line-up of titles it's no insult to suggest that his latest film is the lesser of the lot. It has a distinct period setting, which, when compared to his previously directed films may attribute it to being his most challenging.
Set in the 1920's the story has Affleck playing a small time cook (he labels himself an 'outlaw') who reluctantly accepts work for a Boston mobster in order to plot revenge against the death of his lover. He moves to Florida where he runs a network of popular speakeasy clubs for his boss and becomes a wealthy (and feared) booze lord at a time when prohibition was in full swing. Being so deeply imbedded in the south, his exploits see him facing off with competing mobsters, bigoted swindlers and the Ku Klux Klan.
Were it not such a celebrated genre with countless examples of excellence, LIVE BY NIGHT might have resonated a whole lot more. It is a stylish and handsome-looking film with a moderate edginess about it., however the problem is that the genre has been exhausted over the years and better examples have come before it. While watching it I recalled films like MILLERS CROSSING, ROAD TO PERDITION and ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA (not to mention the HBO series BOARDWALK EMPIRE) and could not stop myself from drawing comparisons. Affleck has recreated the 1920's era very well and by following the novel's cue of having it set in a tropical Cuban environment he has given his film a refreshing twist that alleviates some of the bourdons. And so many of the movie's shortcomings are cleverly masked.
The most irritating element for me was the ongoing voice-over narration, which felt both unnecessary and cumbersome. Affleck's voice interjects at various points to help facilitate the narrative with explanations and reason to the character's movements and choices, which is redundant and adds little to the story. And my other major criticism is that the dynamic between the characters feels underdeveloped and insincere. Affleck's character develops relationships with various others throughout the film – of both the criminal and romantic kind – yet there is very little cohesion to any of them. This lack of an emotional anchor further places LIVE BY NIGHT at the fourth position behind his previous films.
With all of that said the film is far from bad, and presents an action-packed mobster movie that is as glamorous as it is violent. The action is well-crafted and uncompromising, while the production design, wardrobe and cinematography make it a visceral feast for the eyes. And where his previously directed films all share a similar tone and atmosphere, LIVE BY NIGHT steps out of bounds and reminds us that Affleck is an audacious and fearless filmmaker who sets the bar very high for himself. He may have missed the mark ever so slightly in this instance, but when your worst effort is better than most people's best then it's not worth tearing down.