Ben Affleck’s Live By Night opens on a montage of old photographs, and continues much the same. It begins as the gangster film we’ve seen before – Boston, molls, tommy guns and prohibition – cast in the same sepia-tone as the photographs that preceded it. Bronze, brown and white remind us of the clichés, reinforce the nostalgia.
But then the story jolts forward three years and into Florida, and the palette opens up. The brown deepens into cigarbox depth and caramel skin, and yearning blues of the sky and sea intrude upon proceedings. The story evolves into something different: a gangster story where the antagonists are the Klan and the Church, where race is embedded in America’s history in a way that it rarely is in such stories. Those faded photographs begin to look truly old fashioned.
Alas, Live By Night soon returns to the sepia palette and all it implies. Affleck’s outlaw-turned-gangster is distinguished by his morality, but it’s a morality reliant on contrivances that stack up and overwhelm the film. Affleck’s screenplay insists on ending after ending, tying up plot threads that could have happily remained unbound, and pushes forward to a final shot at once sappy and utterly unjustified.