“Live by Night” is the story of the rise of a relatively low-level mobster named Joe Coughlin (Affleck) during Prohibition. Sorta. Kinda. We’ll get to how this epic story on the page lacked an interesting enough protagonist for the screen later. For now, know that Coughlin is on the rise in Boston, aided a bit by his cop father (Brendan Gleeson, great even in what amounts to basically a one-scene role) and in love with local mob boss Albert White’s (Robert Glenister) daughter Emma (Sienna Miller). After ripping off a few poker games, Joe decides he’s going to rob a bank and run away with Emma, but Albert gets wind of it and double crosses poor Joe, nearly killing him.
Ben Affleck has proven himself to be a fantastic actor and a solid director on more than one occasion. With Live by Night, Affleck returns to the novels of Dennis Lehane, the same source as his debut directorial effort, Gone Baby Gone. Unfortunately, this new effort lacks the substance of his previous endeavor, creating a lovely to look at, but otherwise forgettable film.
Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck) is a young man from Boston who, after returning home from the first World War, has decided he’s never going to take orders from anyone else again. For this reason, he ignores the Irish-Italian gang war taking place in his city for a life as an independent “outlaw,” robbing banks and sticking up poker games. He gets drawn into the world of organized crime, however, because he’s fallen in love with the mistress of the head of the Irish mob (Sienna Miller). Following a very bad day in which a bank job goes wrong, leading to the death of some cops, on the same night that mob boss Albert White (Robert Glenister) discovers who’s been sleeping with his girl, Coughlin finds himself beaten half to death before spending a few years in prison for the death of the cops. Following his release, he wants vengeance on White and the Irish mob, which means joining up with the Italians and being sent to Florida to fight the Irish in a war over Prohibition-era rum.
If you’re wondering why a mediocre stick-up man was put in charge of a statewide criminal enterprise, you’re not alone. If the film had been about a gangster in over his head, trying to navigate the dangerous situation he now found himself in, that would be one thing. Instead, Coughlin hits the ground running like he’s been a professional bootlegger his entire life. The guy who claimed to not be gangster is, in fact, a fantastic gangster. He knows just how to deal with people. He knows when to threaten, and when to use violence. All skills that seemingly come from nowhere.
Live by Night is based on a novel and even if you haven’t read it, you’ll still be able to tell. The story doesn’t so much tell a single compelling story as it jumps between important plot points as if it wants to be sure fans of the book all get to see their favorite part. This has the film feel like a series of episodes rather than a cohesive story. This also means that we don’t spend a great deal of time with any characters except for Joe Coughlin himself. We don’t get to know anybody else well enough to get invested in them much, and unfortunately, Affleck doesn’t give his character enough charisma to keep us interested in him either. He pretty much has the same dull expression on his face regardless of the situation.
Each story does have worthwhile aspects to it, though. Chris Cooper plays a pragmatic sheriff who doesn’t like the corruption in his town, but realizes that managing it is what’s best for everybody. Cooper is almost always worth watching and this is still the case here. Elle Fanning plays the most interesting character in the film as the sheriff’s daughter, who travels to Hollywood with dreams of becoming an actress but returns preaching against the evils of the world, having personally experienced most of them. There’s also an altercation with the KKK which comes about because of Coughlin’s relationship with an afro-Cuban woman played by Zoe Saldana. This segment could literally be edited out of the film without impacting anything else. It makes Saldana’s entire character feel superfluous as it seems like the relationship exists solely to bring the Klan into the film. Even the film’s finale, as stylish and explosive as it is, seems to be entirely disconnected from the rest of the movie. Characters return that haven’t been seen for most of the film, with little explanation. Even Affleck’s character seems surprised they showed up again.
It’s clear that there’s just too much story here and the film races through a two hour and ten-minute runtime trying to fit it all in. In addition to directing and starring in Live by Night Ben Affleck also wrote the screenplay and what really seems clear is that he stretched himself too thin. Bad decisions appear to have clearly compounded each other. Another writer could have told the director how to pull more from the material. Another director could have demanded more from their lead actor. Since Affleck is all three, there’s nobody there to save him from himself.