Live by Night (2017)
Live by Night (2017)

Genre: Gangster Running Time: 2 hrs. 8 min.

Release Date: January 13th, 2017 MPAA Rating: R

Director: Ben Affleck Actors: Ben Affleck, Sienna Miller, Chris Messina, Zoe Saldana, Chris Cooper, Elle Fanning, Brendan Gleeson, Remo Girone, Robert Glenister, Matthew Maher, Miguel J. Pimentel, Max Casella




he rules we lived by were lies,” realizes Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck), as he thinks back on his time in the service following orders blindly, which now makes him cherish the freedoms afforded to him as an outlaw. During the 1920s, as Prohibition encourages the deadliest years in Boston, Joe fools himself into believing that he can be an honest criminal just as long as he doesn’t get mixed up with the Irish mob, led by Albert White (Robert Glenister), or the Italian mafia, led by Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone). But he’s secretly in love with White’s moll, Emma (Sienna Miller), which means that he’s more involved in the gangster life than most of the henchmen toting guns or the bootleggers moving liquor.

Emma gives Joe tips on how to make a small fortune, under the noses of White and his crew (this is explained via a flashback to visualized sequences witnessed a mere two minutes prior), but their affair is bound to get noticed eventually. Sure enough, just after pulling off a job at the City of Lawrence Bank – which is supposed to net him enough dough to escape to California with Emma – Joe is cornered by White and nearly executed. The risk-taking robber is rescued by his disapproving father, Deputy Superintendent Thomas Coughlin (Brendan Gleeson), but is forced to serve three years in the Charlestown prison for his participation in the heist. When he gets out (after a couple of minutes, thanks to editing that clearly doesn’t favor demonstrating the gravity of being locked away in a harsh penitentiary), Joe has an opportunity to start fresh. But the thought of getting even with White draws him back into the world of crime.

And that world isn’t all that bad, considering that “Live by Night” glamorizes gangsterism through the ornamentation of sharp suits, big guns, nice cars, foxy dames, limited consequences, and an awe-inspiring power that can only come from commanding lots of muscle. Despite the attention to detail, what with all the costumes, vehicles, sets, makeup, and props, the plot is essentially only about revenge (though it’s a long, windy road, full of unrelated misadventures). Joe experiences great success in Florida, arranging for the manufacturing and selling of rum, which helps to define everyone around him as irreversibly corrupt. This aids in muddying up his intentions of moral cleanliness, as people line up to be knocked off (or manipulated), with White somewhere in the distance. But before the inevitable confrontation, Joe’s character moves through numerous historically-tinged events, including the pressures of the KKK, the Great Depression, the persuasions of religious groups, and Roosevelt’s signing of the Cullen-Harrison Act, though each is glossed over, with major junctures spoken about over the top of montages.

In this environment, there are nothing but dangerous men and dangerous women. There’s also a love story mixed in, but it has little impact on the main character, who doesn’t exhibit any of the dynamical qualities he’s supposed to possess; ultimately, he’s a criminalistic opportunist whether or not he artificially behaves as if he regrets the horrors he’s committed or abetted. Writer/director Ben Affleck seems to be mimicking “Goodfellas,” particularly with the narration, and then “Scarface,” as games of oneupmanship play out to see which party has enough blackmail material over the other to momentarily gain the upper hand – but neither tone fits with a protagonist who won’t act with the severity required to appear authentically formidable.

In the end, the editing ruins much of the excitement mustered by the long-awaited showdown, as it refuses to simply wrap things up. Scene after scene keeps assaulting the screen, as if Affleck couldn’t decide which conclusion was most suitable – and so he used them all. This is in line with the choice of editing at the start, which shows a brief shot of Coughlin in a prison hospital, after being nearly beaten to death; it’s a moment of foreshadowing to which the narrative catches up after only half-an-hour, making it completely unnecessary – or rearranged for the sake of telling the tale just slightly out of order. This isn’t the movie for such gimmicks, nor is Affleck the right heavy for this unsurprising gangland biography. In fact, it’s the supporting roles that far surpass the lead, including Chris Messina as an Ybor City partner; Chris Cooper as a local police chief and Elle Fanning as his daughter; and Matthew Maher as an unnervingly unpredictable, mostly brutish, partially clownish, perpetually appalling Klan member (who turns out to be the most memorable persona in the entire film).

– Mike Massie

  • 4/10