Affleck’s Period Gangster Thriller a Decent Tribute to Genre
Directed by Ben Affleck
Starring Ben Affleck, Chris Messina, Elle Fanning
Released January 13th, 2017
If anyone can charm the devil, it’s Joe Coughlin. Joe and his pal Dion are 1920’s Boston boys pulling small time stick-’em-ups. Joe says he’s an outlaw and rejects the notion he’s a gangster. He wants no part of the gangster lifestyle, even as he lives it.
For one thing, he’s having an affair with Emma Gould (Sienna Miller), the paramour of mob boss Albert White (Robert Glenister). Probably not the smartest move. Might want to rethink that one, Joe.
Rival mob boss Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone) attempts to blackmail Joe into killing White, but he refuses, citing his whole “I’m not really a gangster” mentality.
Affleck has streamlined Lehane’s book and proven once again that he is an accomplished director
Joe and Dion (Chris Messina) pull a bank heist that goes sour and Joe is sent to the big house much to the chagrin of his police captain father (Brendan Gleeson), but not before Emma betrays him and he’s beaten to a bloody pulp by White and his goons.
The elder Coughlin pulls some strings and Joe is sprung from the slammer after a few short years. He immediately decides to go straight and our story ends with Joe living happily ever after as a decent, hardworking, upstanding citizen.
Wait. No, that’s not how it goes at all. Joe wants revenge against White and asks Pescatore for help. Maso sends him down to Tampa to take charge of his rum running business. It’s there that he meets and becomes romantically involved with Graciela Corrales (Zoe Saldana).
Now embracing his gangster identity, Joe tries his best to get in good with Irving Figgis (Chris Cooper), the local police captain. Figgis agrees to turn a blind eye to Joe’s rum running as long as their paths don’t cross. This proves difficult when Joe runs afoul of the KKK and even more difficult when Joe attempts to expand his illicit empire by opening a casino.
This is frowned upon by Loretta Figgis (Elle Fanning), the police chief’s daughter. Loretta is a revival preacher, called to spread the holy word of God after suffering through something traumatic.
In addition to starring as Joe Coughlin, Ben Affleck co-produced, directed, and wrote the Live by NIght’s screenplay, adapted from Dennis Lehane’s book. Affleck has streamlined Lehane’s book and proven once again that he is an accomplished director, with the film bookended by two thrilling scenes; a kinetic car chase in Boston and a blood-soaked shootout in Tampa.
Zoe Saldana’s character doesn’t add up to much, while Elle Fanning shines as the police chief’s daughter. Her scenes with Affleck are among the film’s best. The weakest element of the film might be Affleck as Coughlin. He seems too old for the role, and oddly unaffected by the events happening around him. Chris Messina, however, is fantastic as Joe’s right hand man Dion. I believed their friendship and Dion’s willingness to go along with Joe’s schemes.
Taking place over the course of fifteen years, Live by Night packs a lot of story (maybe too much?) into its running time. The pace picks up after Joe and Dion leave Boston for Tampa, but at times it feels like this was a season-long television show edited down to a feature length movie.
Over the years we’ve seen these types of conflicted, murderous men of honor in plenty of gangster films. While Live by Night doesn’t offer anything new to the genre, it’s a decent love letter to 1920’s and 1930’s tough guy cinema.