Blu-ray Review: Live By Night

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Ben Affleck's fourth directorial effort offers plenty of style and a bevy of sterling supporting performances. Live By Night, now on Blu-ray and DVD from Warner Bros. Home Entertainment, performed rather disastrously at the box office ($22 million, that's worldwide). It also received little support from critics. While not a great film, the ambitious crime epic displays Affleck's sure-handed storytelling skills. If you want a clue as to why Live By Night ultimately falls short of being truly memorable, take a look at the Blu-ray cover shot. That rather blank look on Affleck's face says a lot. Don't get me wrong, I like him as an actor (Changing Lanes features one of his best performances), despite what seems like a prevailing public consensus of negativity. But in Live By Night, the challenge of crafting a compelling lead character while writing, directing, and producing proves to be too much.

In the Prohibition-era Live By Night (based on a novel by Dennis Lahane, author of the source material for Affleck's directorial debut Gone, Baby, Gone), Affleck plays World War I vet-turned-career criminal Joe Coughlin. Having adopted a post-war attitude that crime pays—screw anybody who gets hurt along the way—Joe operates as sort of a free-agent gangster. Try as he may to convince himself that nothing really matters, Joe is deeply in love with Emma Gould (Sienna Miller). Trouble is, Emma is already Irish mob boss Albert White's (Robert Glenister) moll. When White's enemy, Italian boss Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone), finds out about Joe and Emma's affair he sees it as a way to essentially control Joe. Pescatore sends Joe on a mission to hit White.

But again, Joe is no one's soldier. An attempt to escape the whole sordid scene goes wrong (but not before an exciting car chase). Emma winds up dead. A grieving Joe leaves Boston for Florida. The majority of Live By Night charts Joe's exploits as a glorified strong-arm man in Pascatore's profitable booze-bootlegging industry. But Joe is a thinking-man's gangster, slowly piecing together a master plan that serves as the engine driving Night's methodically-paced plot. Great emphasis continues to be placed on Joe's romantic life as he develops a then-taboo relationship with a Cuban woman, Graciela Corrales (Zoe Saldana).

There's a lot going on in Live By Night, perhaps too much. Maybe Affleck could've cut down on the sprawl often associated with adapting novels in order to find the core of Joe's story. Otherwise it might've actually needed expansion (the included deleted scenes demonstrate as much). Much of the crime-related machinations feels pretty standard for the genre, however well staged. The distinguishing factor that sets Night apart is Joe's quest for purpose in his life. Affleck doesn't try to make him a saint—we see Joe do horrible things (especially one particularly nasty incident involving the daughter of Tampa-area Sheriff Irving Figgis; the sheriff is played by Chris Cooper, the daughter by Elle Fanning).

Flaws and all, Affleck tries to frame Joe's story as one of redemption and enlightenment. But the evils deeds don't really square with the third-act attempts to bring meaning to his life. Perhaps wearing four hats was one too many since2 Joe, as realized on screen, is all flash and style. The film wants us to see substance, but Affleck doesn't fully deliver. 

rsz_live_by_night_bd.jpg Warner Bros. does deliver, with a Blu-ray that shows off Robert Richardson's stunning cinematography. In a relatively rare move, Warner has included both Dolby Atmos (defaulting to Dolby TrueHD 7.1) and DTS-HD MA 5.1 as audio options.

Special features are led by a director's commentary from Ben Affleck, joined by DP Robert Richardson and Jess Gonchor (production designer). It's pretty dry, but should prove interesting for anyone interested primarily in the technical side of Live By Night. Five deleted scenes (all with optional Affleck commentary) shed some light on why the film might've been better had it been longer. A half-hour of material is split between four featurettes—one each detailing the male and female cast members, a piece about author Dennis Lehane, and a closer look at the car chase (one of the film's best set pieces).

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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