I remember one time when my brother commented how he didn’t really care for Ben Affleck. “He always plays a stoic Boston street-tough in every movie he’s in.”
This whole movie is my brother’s argument personified.
This is my review of Live By Night!
Okay, so like Nocturnal Animals, this movie is a tad hard to summarize. Here goes nothing!
Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck) is a World War I veteran who has vowed to never live by anyone else’s rules other than his own–he’s basically Tommy Pickles if he grew up and became a gangster. We first meet Joe when he’s in a–how to put this delicately?–romantic entanglement with Emma Gould (an unrecognizable Sienna Miller), who is the mistress of Irish mafia gangster Albert White (Robert Glenister). When things go horribly wrong for Joe and Emma, i.e. Albert finds out they’re lovers by night because the plot demands it, Joe turns to Italian mafia gangster leader Maso Pescatore (okay, this character [Joe] is a crime boss magnet, isn’t he?) and ends up running a rum empire in Ybor City in Tampa, Florida, where he meets Graciella Corrales (Zoe Saldana), the sister of a Cuban businessman and falls for her.
Yeah…if this all sounds like an Edgar Award-winning novel from 2012 that is a 401 pages long, that’s because it is! Live by Night is based on the book of the same name by Dennis Lehane, who was also the screenwriter for this flick.
This is certainly a well-made movie. There are some gorgeous shots and the cinematography is as outstanding here as it was in Arrival. The second and third act of this film is really where it shines. The story gains a much better pace and we do get to connect with Joe Coughlin. The climactic Michael Mann-style shootout is thrilling and engaging to watch. No doubt that actor/director Ben Affleck knows how to make one heck of a heart-pounding action sequence.
Live by Night has a lot of very intriguing ideas and subplots. For one, Joe is the gangster son of Officer Thomas Coughlin and THAT relationship between a law-abiding father and law-breaking son (a reverse Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, if you will) would’ve been fascinating to explore! Also, halfway through the second act, we meet Loretta Figgis (Elle Fanning), who goes from drug-addicted aspiring actress to a devout Christian preacher and her sermons turn the public against the construction of a new casino run by Joe. Honestly, I wish that was the main plot; a character study of the rivalry between a rum empire-running gangster and a young female preacher as the fate of the casino lies in the hands of both forces, one opposing and the one trying to keep it alive. I’d pay money to see that movie! Speaking of which, Elle Fanning’s performance as Loretta is haunting; soft-spoken and cloaked in white dresses with hollow eyes, I really wish she had a bigger role than what she got here. Nevertheless, she’s as mesmerizing here as she was as Aurora in 2014’s “Maleficent.” I’ll be sure to post a review of Maleficent here on CGB at some point.
And yet, those enthralling subplots I mentioned are both a strength AND a weakness. Just head for the Misses segment and I’ll explain.
These intriguing subplots are given almost no time to develop. The relationship between Joe and Graciella comes and goes, and we’re just supposed to assume that they’re in love because they hug and talk romantically every once in a while. Meanwhile, Elle Fanning’s ex-druggie turned 1930’s version of Paula White–minus White’s prosperity gospel angle–shows up, preaches with vigor and then we’re just told via Ben Affleck’s narration that her sermons turned the public against his casino. As for the relationship between Joe and his cop dad, well, we get a taste of the intrigue of their conflicted relationship, but then cop dad dies off-screen.
Halfway through this movie, I found myself asking a question that, once I thought it, made the whole movie fall apart for me: “What is this movie about?” Allow me to explain.
Okay, on its surface, Live by Night is about a gangster who does crummy things to build a rum empire during Prohibition. That’s all fine and dandy, but at its core, what is Live by Night about? What’s the interior goal within the story?
I’ve picked some examples to bring perspective into my argument:
What is Zootopia about? It is a commentary on how our perception of those who are different from us can color the way we treat them.
What is Arrival about? It is about how language is a bridge between peoples and raises the question of how you would act if you knew your own future.
What is Pan’s Labyrinth about? It is about how we as human beings are capable of being the most frightening monsters, and how fantasy can be both a coping mechanism and a Hell of our making if we allow the line between what is real and what is make-believe to become a blurry fog.
So, with all of this in mind, I have no idea what Live by Night is about at its core because the movie itself has nothing to say. Believe me, I tried very hard to find its narrative center, and to be fair it does have hints of the impact of toxic masculinity here and there. There is also some speck of prosperity gospel commentary lying around, but the script is so restrained in its approach to the ambitious source material that it ends up not really having anything on its mind.
Overall, Live by Night is one of those movies that gets made to win awards. I would not be surprised if this gets some awards recognition. The set design and costumes are top-notch, the cast is stellar and the cinematography is nothing short of remarkable.
That all being said, I’ve always believed that the best compliment you can give to a film is to have it analyzed and remembered by popular culture. I’ve watched countless YouTube videos that examine the complex narrative choices of Arrival, Pan’s Labyrinth and other films. Though it really does try to have meaning, Live by Night never really finds its voice and, in turn, probably won’t be getting that analytical treatment any time soon.
Saint Isaac of Nineveh, pray for us.