Live By Night plays a bit like The Godfather, Part II if Francis Ford Coppola had been very careful to never make Michael Corleone seem like a bad guy. This is not to say that Live By Night is not good. Director Ben Affleck has in his two previous films, The Town (2010) and Argo (2012), proved a more-than-able director of himself as an actor, but in Live By Night, he seems to be giving in to movie star vanity. Affleck goes to great lengths to let the audience know that, despite his occupation, his gangster hero is a good man who hates the evil acts he perpetrates, and really only perpetrates those acts against really bad guys. With Live By Night, Affleck is not exploring the corruption of the soul as the great gangster movies do, he is chronicling the career of the world’s nicest, most progressive gangster. As you might imagine, the result is not very interesting.
Live By Night tracks the rise of Irish-American hood Joe Coughlin (Affleck) from small-time, unaffiliated, Boston-area stickup man to powerful captain of a Tampa-based rum-running operation. At the film’s beginning, Coughlin is gleefully robbing banks and gangsters’ card games, aided by a pair of chums and the mistress of one Albert White (Robert Glenister), a powerful Irish mobster. Joe is also carrying on an affair with the aforementioned mistress (Sienna Miller), a situation that comes to a predictably tragic end, when White discovers the affair and exacts his revenge. Following a multi-year prison stint that is mostly ignored, Joe finds himself aligned with White’s Italian rival, Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone), charged with establishing a bootlegging operation in Ybor City, a vibrant Cuban neighborhood in Tampa, Florida. Coughlin rises to his task with aplomb, driving White’s operation out of the city and generating obscene profits, all while romancing a beautiful molasses distributor (Zoe Saldana), and plotting his revenge against White.
It’s obvious that Affleck, who wrote the screenplay, adapting a novel by Dennis Lehane, wants to create an epic crime saga. That Live By Night does not feel at all that epic is entirely a function of the screenplay. Affleck commits the classic screenwriting sin of telling instead of showing; we are informed via Affleck’s clunky first-person voiceover that Joe spends three years in prison and, in an even more egregious example, that his crew takes over the Tampa rum trade. What should have been interesting sequences in the story of Coughlin’s rise to power are sacrificed in the name of lengthening the story’s timeframe, making it more saga-esque. Important characters are introduced only to be forgotten for much of the film’s runtime; this includes White, ostensibly the film’s central antagonist. Affleck’s Joe is clearly meant to be something of an antihero (the dialogue would have us believe that), but he never registers as such. The character reads like Affleck does not want him to be too unlikable. Joe is pitted against far more violent and venal criminals, a number of them members of the Ku Klux Klan, so none of the violence that Joe visits upon them ever seems wrong. Joe could be characterized as the 1920’s most startlingly progressive Irish gangster, completely free of cultural prejudice while all the other white gangsters around him are monstrously racist. Just before Joe commits his most egregious crime, he begs the man he is about to hurt “please don’t make me do this.” In scene that seems terribly miscalculated to invite comparison to The Godfather, Joe tells his wife “you can ask me about my business, I’ll always tell you the truth.”
Due to the episodic nature of the movie, few of the characters really get a chance to make an impression. As Coughlin’s “Man Friday” Dion, Chris Messina never rises above the classic goofy buddy role, Saldana is little more than the classic innocent wife. Faring better are Chris Cooper as a semi-corrupt Tampa Sheriff, and Elle Fanning as his damaged, hyper-religious daughter. The film’s best performance is recorded by Matthew Maher as an obnoxious worm of a Klan member who torments Joe for the most interesting episode of the film’s middle section. Despite having directed himself in the lead role, Affleck does not seem particularly interested in being in Live By Night.
It’s hard to help feeling like a movie as disjointedly episodic as Live By Night, would work better in a longer, more naturally episodic form. Live By Night the mini-series could be quite compelling, the form would give the various incidents time to breathe. As Live By Night is, it all feels crammed together, the events feel rushed. For a crime saga, Live By Night is actually relatively short at just over two hours, but it feels interminable.
Live By Night
Director: Ben Affleck
Screenwriter: Ben Affleck
Cinematographer: Robert Richardson
Editor: William Goldenberg
Starring: Ben Affleck, Chris Messina, Zoe Saldana, Chris Cooper, Elle Fanning, Sienna Miller