What you put out into this world will always come back to you, but it never comes back how you predict. Taking fatherly advice is not in Joe Coughlin’s nature. Instead, the WWI vet is a self-proclaimed anti-establishment outlaw, despite being the son of the Boston Police Deputy Superintendent. Joe’s not all bad, though; in fact, he’s not really bad enough for the life he’s chosen. Unlike the gangsters he refuses to work for, he has a sense of justice and an open heart, and both work against him, leaving him vulnerable time and again—in business and in love. Driven by a need to right the wrongs committed against him and those close to him, Joe heads down a risky path that goes against his upbringing and his own moral code. Leaving the cold Boston winter behind, he and his reckless crew turn up the heat in Tampa. And while revenge may taste sweeter than the molasses that infuses every drop of illegal rum he runs, Joe will learn that it comes at a price.
What We Thought:
Unfortunately Live By Night is Ben Affleck’s first miss as a director. I’m actually sad to say that because I love his first three films and this movie could have been a great gangster flick.
The film was rumored to be in production years back before he starred in Gone Girl and Batman v Superman and I kind of wish he did follow Argo up right away with this. Maybe it would have been a different movie.
My biggest issue with the film is the tone and pacing. It’s all over the map figuratively and literally. It opens with Affleck returning home to Boston after World War I. He’s a thief running with a small gang and when a job goes wrong, he gets wrapped up with the Italian mob and is sent to Florida to help run the rum distribution. There he grows bigger, but has run ins with the Klan, the local cops and falls in love with a Cuban. Seems simple enough, but there’s so much that could have been trimmed.
In Boston he has a love interest (played by Sienna Miller who I didn’t even recognize) that really wasn’t necessary. There’s enough reason for him to head south for the mob and he has a love interest in the south (Zoe Saldana) that you don’t need Miller. You could have saved at least 20 minutes of film time if you eliminate her.
As he grows in Florida he deals with the KKK and a religious girl (Elle Fanning). This is another situation where you could have trimmed one or the other. I’m sure in the time period of this film gangsters probably dealt with the Klan if they were using Cuban or Black workers. And in the time of Prohibition I’m sure the religious folk in the south had a lot of power to prevent gambling from happening, but you didn’t need that if you already had the Klan.
All that jumping from drama to drama changes the tone of the film. Does it want to be a gangster flick? Does it want to have race or religious messages? There’s big gaps of time that are missing Saldana’s character while Affleck’s dealing with other issues. Same for Chris Cooper’s character. They bring someone back and you’re like “Oh yeah they were in this”. It’s based on a book by Dennis Lehane, but it’s so long and jumps around so much that it feels like 2 or 3 books merged into one film.
It does have a few positives. Chris Messina is good in it. I never remember that I like him as an actor until I see him in something and remember that I like him as an actor. The film is lit beautifully. The set design and production are great, but the film looks even better. It’s Boston and Florida pre-World War II and it has that vibe to it. The costuming and wardrobe are good as well.
The fact that Live By Night is opening now should tell you something. It has zero award buzz and after seeing it, I understand why. It’s far from a terrible movie and it won’t hurt Affleck’s career (the man did survive Gigli and Bennifer), but I really wonder how different the movie could have been if it was made years back when it should have been.
Cast & Crew:
- Ben Affleck
- Chris Cooper
- Chris Messina
- Zoe Saldana
- Brendan Gleeson
Recommended If You Like:
- Dennis Lehane books
- Ben Affleck