Live By Night is like the Forest Gump of gangster films, and for the record I didn’t like Forest Gump. By that I mean that the movie is just one plot point after another, linked by voiceover and some intermittent attempts at characterization, with a feeble story centered around the hero’s quest of revenge for a lost love. Here Ben Affleck directs and stars in another Denis Lehane adaptation, which he proved he could do well with Gone Baby Gone. However, this time around, he has sole screenwriting credits, and having not read Lehane’s novel, it’s difficult to determine whether the issue is with the original content or merely with Affleck’s execution.
Affleck stars as Joe Coughlin, the son of an Irish immigrant police officer in Boston, post-World War I. We learn almost immediately (via handy voiceover) that war changed him; “I left a soldier; I came home an outlaw” he says. He’s done taking orders and ready to make his own way. With Prohibition still in effect, the easiest way to do this is by holding up bars and running small amounts of liquor. He’s apparently very smart and good at this, but not quite smart enough to avoid getting romantic with the leader of the Irish mob’s woman, Emma (Sienna Miller). This results in the first of many instances of blackmailing and double-crossing, and he ends up badly beaten and in jail, believing Emma has drowned in the river. Upon his release, he’s so hell-bent on revenge that he takes up with the Italian mob boss, who sends him straight to Tampa to run operations there.
If the movie is any indication, Tampa in the 1920’s looks like one hell of a party—the sun shines brightly and the booze flows (mostly) freely. Coughlin quickly learns that the game down south is totally different; for one, there are more players. In addition to Italians and Irish, there are also Cubans, Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, and Spaniards, and everyone has their own set of rules and motivations. Despite being one of the few white people, Coughlin gains the trust of the locals and rises to the top of the gangster game almost immediately. Along the way he must overcome a series of increasingly absurd setbacks, including a moralistic sheriff (Chris Cooper), an inbred, Ku Klux Klan member with a lisp, and a heroine junkie/prostitute turned Bible-thumping prophetess (Elle Fanning) who’s against everything fun and illegal. Somewhere along the way he falls in love with Graziela (Zoe Saldana), the activist sister of the Cuban mob boss.
The biggest problem with Live By Night (and there are many) is that it tries to be too many things and fails at all of them. It could’ve been an examination of American excess and the pitfalls of self-made success, a la Wolf of Wall Street, but it refuses to carry the decadence far enough. And it fails to flesh out any of the potentially interesting subjects of religion, ethnicity, and class, all of which were subject to massive shifts in importance at the time. America itself was undergoing huge transitions, what with the repercussions of World War I and the implementation of Prohibition. The rules of morality itself were changing. There are whiffs and glimpses of all of these themes in Live By Night, but at most they’re briefly picked up and set back down.
Affleck is more focused on his character Joe than on social commentary, which would be fine, if there was anything interesting about Joe. It seems as though Affleck was trying to tell a coming-of-age story, about a man who thinks he wants one thing but discovers (only when it’s too late) that he actually wants something else. Although not terribly original, this version could’ve been rendered with poignancy. But the characters are so underdeveloped that I had trouble understanding why they’d care about each other at all, much less die for each other. And rather than feeling any sympathy for Joe when the woman he loves turns out to be shallow and bitter, I just thought “Damn, I wish he would’ve realized that two hours earlier.” It’s a shame Affleck couldn’t narrow down the film’s focus, because this could’ve served as a timely examination for him as a man who is undergoing his own personal and professional transitions.
The actors, a collectively impressive bunch, do their best to flesh out characters who seem invented largely to serve the plot. Fanning is particularly compelling, and it’s a pity that her character comes and goes so quickly. Affleck is best when he’s being sassy, cocky, or immature, but when he goes into all-American hero mode, he turns into a very handsome paper doll.
What works, if anything does, is the production. The film looks sumptuous; the visual contrast between the wet grays of Boston and the sun-bathed apricots of Tampa is stunning. The costumes, particularly those of Zoe Saldana, are deserving of a museum display. And the sound mixing during the car chases and shootouts has a visceral, naturalistic quality that adds a surge of realism not found elsewhere in the film. Unfortunately, the musical score only emphasizes the already ever-present sentimentality, and seems to court an emotional reaction that is unearned by what’s happening on screen.
Live By Night is both too much and too little. Early in the movie, his character says, “I realize it’s not enough to break the rules; you have to be strong enough to make your own.” Affleck obediently follows all the rules, and the result is two hours of very good-looking cliches.
Rachel Woldum is barista and bartender currently living in Minneapolis. An MFA in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University, Rachel also writes a TV column for Southern Minnesota Scene, and develops comic book scripts for Cartoon Studios.