6 incohesive subplots out of 10
“Live By Night” is one of the more unfortunate kind of bad movies. It’s filmed very tight, it looks great, it sounds great and its large cast all give performances between adequate and excellent. But none of that can save a film whose plot and pacing are simply atrocious. It’s a shame to see a film with the bones of a good movie simply be bad.
Set in the prohibition era, “Live By Night” follows the rise of the gangster Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck), spanning more than a decade of his life. The film aspires to be in the vein of other gangster epics but after an engaging first act the film simply falls apart. The first 40 minutes of the film follows a younger Coughlin while he robs banks and involves himself in a doomed romance. It’s filled with heist scenes and a relatively engaging doomed romance, and it’s when the film is at its best. Unfortunately, it ends and there’s still an hour and a half of run time left. Its pacing falls apart and any kind of cohesive, cumulative story just disappears. It essentially abandons the entire plot of the first act and moves on to a new setting and an exposition heavy slow moving clunky rise to power. It’s really strange because it simply does nothing to advance any kind of main plot in an hour of runtime. Action sequences become sparse, and because they spent a third of the film developing a romantic interest that’s no longer relevant Coughlin’s new relationship suffers. It seems as if the film was intended to bring all its subplots together in a cathartic moment, but that never happens. Instead we get an aimless array of stories in Coughlin’s life that are each poorly paced.
The oddest thing about this is that really everything else in the film is done well. The “Live By Night” cast is excellent with Elle Fanning, Zoe Saldana, Sienna Miller, Chris Messina, Chris Cooper, and Brendan Gleeson all filling out their supporting roles incredibly well. It’s certainly the kind of cast that could’ve populated the gangster epic this film was meant to be, and their consistent performances are one of the few things that keep this bad film from becoming an awful one. It’s shot well too, with the more than satisfactory cinematography that I’ve come to expect of Ben Affleck’s directing. It even sounds great, using excellent sound effects and deftly repurposing era appropriate music. But those are the bones of a good film, not the flesh.