The gangster movie has always been a staple of cinema, from the 1930s black-and-white Little Caesar and The Public Enemy to The Godfather, Scarface (remake) and Goodfellas. Audiences are fascinated by the career criminal and his rise to be king of the mountain… before he’s inevitably knocked down by another ambitious crook. The façade that they are simply businessmen that handle more “delicate” merchandise and take a keen interest in managing the competition has always been one of the more intriguing aspects of their personalities — the ability to compartmentalize, rationalize and, when all else fails, deny. Live by Night is slightly more complex as its protagonist has always had higher, more sensitive aspirations.
Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck) was a soldier who returned from France after WWI a changed man. Having seen and contributed to the horrors of the battlefield, he refuses to ever again accept an order from another man. Ruling out most occupations, the son of a Boston Police Deputy Superintendent (Brendan Gleeson) becomes a bank robber. Joe is in love with a woman (Sienna Miller) and hopes to put together enough money so they can run away. But their dreams are dashed by the head of the Irish mob, Albert White (Robert Glenister). Determined to get even, Joe offers his services to the Italian mob boss, Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone). In turn, he’s sent to Florida to handle bootlegging operations in the area and regain territory from White. While the county sheriff (Chris Cooper) is willing to turn a blind eye to their ventures, a young religious leader (Elle Fanning) and the local KKK prove less reasonable; particularly when Joe unites with a Cuban woman (Zoe Saldana).
More than a gangster movie, this is Joe’s personal growth story as he gradually finds out who he is and who he wants to be in the process of becoming a successful bootlegger. He’s unquestionably a romantic at heart rather than a killer. His first response is to negotiate with or pay uncooperative people rather than immediately put a bullet in their head/heart/both. For the most part, this works; when it doesn’t, he’s able to outsmart his opponents into giving him the advantage. This combination of empathy and intelligence makes him an extremely effective boss for whom others are willing to do the dirty work — namely his right-hand man, Dion (Chris Messina).
Since there isn’t a lot of bloodshed, there’s a lot of time to appreciate the stunning ‘20s style and get to know Joe. (Fans can try to capture some of this beauty via related app filters.) His devotion to the stylish women in his life is the only thing that supersedes his commitment to the job or desire for revenge. Whether in Boston or Florida, Joe falls in love hard and will do almost anything to ensure a happy future — including leaving a life of crime behind… whether he’ll be afforded the opportunity to do so is another matter. He dresses in smart, three-piece suits, and handles his business transactions with a smile and a convincing tone of confidence that you’d expect from someone entrusted with such power and knows he’ll get what he wants one way or another.
— Live By Night (@livebynight) January 13, 2017
There’s a surprising amount of humour in the film and although it’s funny and impeccably delivered, it’s difficult to decide if it fits in the movie. Often the comedy is inserted to lighten the mood in tense scenes of violence or other matters… but it’s a gangster movie — it’s supposed to be tense. Conversely, because the jokes are effective, it’s tough to recommend removing the dialogue from the script; especially when there are so many other things that should be trimmed to decrease the lengthy runtime from two hours and eight minutes, such as the unnecessary epilogue that doesn’t enhance any aspect of the story.
Affleck wears a lot of hats on this picture. While he proves an adequate director, the multiple roles unfortunately cause him to be blind to his somewhat overwrought script. Moreover, his portrayal of Joe is fitting (even more so as he chooses not to adopt an Irish accent), but often overshadowed by those around him. Cooper and Fanning are at the top of this list. The sheriff goes through a very difficult transition as he’s forced to bend to Joe’s will at significant cost to his own well-being. Conversely, Fanning plays the sheriff’s daughter who attempts to atone for her sins by saving the souls of others via a grand display of religious devotion. Affleck’s camaraderie with Messina is also notable as their easy friendship is a source of seemingly natural humour.