A foley track overruling the score is something rarely seen anymore. Most audiences are completely desensitized to the constant lack of a notable retreat to a casual silence. That’s a decision that has filtered down from blockbusters to become seemingly part of Hollywood’s cohesive structure for a crowd pleaser. However, while that may guarantee an audience it’s forgetting a fundamental fact about human emotion, it takes time to achieve and director Ben Affleck utilizes his film techniques elegantly to bring his picture to life. It aspires for the subtle techniques and settings of an old Hollywood gangster picture and comes close.
The opening started out a little rocky, using foley over score appeared as a burden at first. The decision to use it this way only seeming to exacerbate the exposition that for a moment seemed painful. However, as the reels played onwards it’s elusive charming trait began to reveal itself. The foley track became a permanent baseline from which the score slowly rises during selected scenes used as a way to heighten moments of thrill and emotion, the chase, the lovers swooning, the fragile waters of a heart breaking. The use of sound to subconsciously que the mind in this way seemed to make the heart race beyond that of a normal gangster picture as Affleck understands it first needs to rest. As the picture slowly progresses the time for which the score is used becomes longer and more refined until all chaos is let loose and we feel how much the right score used at the right time alone can thrill beyond the conventional — especially in a crime film.
Use of this timed and intensifying sound technique additionally makes the picture at a stretch of two hours seem to behold a satisfying longer runtime. However, where he succeeds in sound he falters in scene numbers as that rather unflattering voice over and exposition could have been replaced by an opening scene it feels to lack as the protagonist Joe Coughlin portrayed by Ben Affleck is painfully at first placed into the middle of a complex opening situation that could have played well on screen.
This seems to be one of a few faults of the film surprising arising not from that it didn’t achieve but from that it seemed to aspire to but left on the doorstep. One of these is where all the major shocks and surprises appear to come not from Joe Coughlin but from his surroundings almost berating the character with surprises and forgetting to shock us. This is a saddening byproduct of forgetting to handle character information carefully instead with Coughlin the floodgates are opened and the audience is told everything about him from the get go. This knowledge of the character’s structure allows you to anticipate his movements instead of learning his structure from his actions, which only then can shock as in old Hollywood gangster pictures.
One of the things it does utilize masterfully comes from costume designer Jacqueline West as she takes on a similar tactic to the use of sound by employing the use of the color in her costumes to assist the story — a style that is becoming lost most of all in crime and action films. This is first used to separate Joe Coughlin from his surrounding characters at a time when he has declared himself a lone outlaw and it’s also repurposed to tell you where Coughlin fits in and the characters he fits with as the story continues. Later it’s used to associate him with his true love playing into a small moment of pure romantic bliss on a beach as the film reaches its final act — this is executed perfectly.
Ben Affleck taking the helm as director once again combined with his role as a producer only makes his lead performance more worthy of respect despite being overruled itself by the performances of Zoe Saldana and Elle Fanning. Affleck additionally wrote the screenplay adapting it from Dennis Lehane’s novel of the same title. Much like his previous films he has sought out another story within which he has found a tale that is personal for him to tell. This extra relation with the character makes the film all the more captivating as it progresses most importantly past the opening. Lehane has previously authored other novels later adapted into films including Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone, Shutter Island and The Drop. One other of which Affleck has also made shine onscreen, having co-wrote the adaptation of Gone Baby Gone with Aaron Stockard and then directing it as his first feature back in 2007.
This awards season while overlooked so far Live by Night seems to be a serious contender in the acting, production, sound and costume design categories.
The film is set in 1920’s Boston following Joe Coughlin through a dangerous love affair as he is lead into giving up his solo life of an outlaw and joining a family of gangsters in search of revenge. A group that is an enemy of gangster Albert White that has turned Coughlin’s life upside down. Coughlin is sent to manage the gangsters interests in Tampa, Florida during the Prohibition era encountering many tough decisions and dangers from both action and inaction. The most dangerous soon follows him from Boston and he is forced to face it head on whether he thinks he can walk away from it or not.
Despite it’s faults this is a picture better watched on the big screen where the sound and colour can slowly entice you into a superb gangster story.
About the Author
Editor-in-Chief of Tastic Film Magazine James Rush. Follow @byjamesrush