Let’s just get this out of the way, cinematographer, Robert Richardson is a bloody genius because this movie is gorgeous. His use of environment, light and dark created a backdrop that melds perfectly with the ‘20s vibe and set an almost tangible tone for the film. And whomever did the site scouting for this film deserves an award as well. The vistas and venues are amazing and tell a story all their own about the 1920s. Think: Bostonian noir, 1920s prohibition grit, steamy southern Florida coastlines and hot Cuban nights. Live By Night is a costume and set designer’s dream and more than one person will leave the theater with clothing, furniture and hat envy.
The movie opens with a photo montage and voice over with a flash to an image of a man lying in a hospital bed bandages and banged up all to hell. It’s a familiar storytelling tactic especially for book adaptations; a quick way to introduce information there’s no way to fit into the film affirmatively. But this choice of opening is also your first clue that maybe possibly, that trailer you saw and description you read aren’t what this movie is going to be about.
The Upside: Joe Coughlin is a WWI veteran returned state-side making his living as self-styled outlaw. He’s not mobbed up or affiliated with the Irish or the Italians. He wants nothing to do with organized crime and has no interest in their war. Remember, in the all mighty battle to control access to alcohol, the Irish and the Italians both wanted to corner the market and neither shied away from violence in its efforts to do so.
In the middle of all this warfare you find Coughlin and his motley crew robbing and stealing their way to a living (side note: Joe is not the getaway driver you’re looking for) and loving his girl on the sly until-naturally-things go awry…
Live By Night gives a workmen’s glimpse into Boston’s underbelly and its inner-workings. The action is fast paced but not too unbelievable, intense but still accessible and moves the story forward. You get a clear idea of who the players are and there’s more than one casting surprise in cast (hello Anthony Michael Hall, I didn’t know you were going to be here…) that all play their parts well. If there was ever a gangster’s moll to risk making your girl, Emma (Sienna Miller) with her sly wit and ridiculously beautiful face is definitely a walking hip-swishing temptation. You need a guy to have your back, call you on your shit and wisecrack his way through drama and danger then Dion Bartolo (Chris Messina) is the sidekick you’re looking for.
After a reversal of fortune, that also prompts a change in Coughlin’s attitude about mob dealings, the action heads south to Tampa, Florida. There are plenty of mob movies that talk about the scene in Miami but very few take the two-hour drive to clue you into what was really important about Florida and rum running, (the South contributed more than moonshine and hillbillies to Prohibition) molasses. Introduce Coughlin into the mix and well, shenanigans.
Enter the intriguing brother and sister Esteban (Miguel) and Graciela (Zoe Saldana) Suarez. A prettier pair of savvy business partners you’ll never meet-seriously Zoe Saldana and Miguel were mean to wear 1920s fashion and live and breathe Afro-Latino rhythms in the Florida coastal air-as keepers of the much-needed shipments of a key rum making ingredient.
At this point the movie gains some momentum and it’s easier to (you think) see the direction of things to come. There are a few twists, turns, and traumatic reveals to keep you engaged through the end of the flick. If you’ve been paying attention, some of the events occurring in the latter half are predictable (it’s a crime movie) not pedantic in their presentation.
Affleck (as director) makes some interesting choices in his portrayal of underworld crime and its many varied wars – particularly the equal opportunity nature of criminals and cutthroats- the scenes may not be dragged out battles in the street but they certainly make an impact. This is a show and tell film, checking out isn’t an option; which, of course, some viewers aren’t going to like working for their payoff. But it’s an enjoyable perspective and, in some senses, a more realistic look at the world of gangsters and the “demon rum” running business. The battles weren’t all waged out loud with crash/pow shoot ‘em ups. Smart gangsters squeezed their enemies and crushed their foes.
Live By Night gives a hat-tip to the strategist and principled gangsters. You, know the ones who did just as much good in their communities as bad. Affleck’s portrayal of the South is both subtle and in your face. There are brown faces and brown bodies living, working, celebrating under what’s obviously segregation. There are gentlemen thieves (i.e. bankers and landed gentry) sitting cozily next to Klansmen and corrupt police. There are bursts of realism interspersed with the fantastical beauty and the calm glory of the South.
There’s no way to review all the notable performances in Live by Night so it’ll have to suffice to say that no one failed to fully embrace what their roles expected of them and each made you believe who they were intended to be with flair.
The Downside: The synopsis floated around for Live By Night is just one huge misnomer. It’s a guarantee people are going to walk in expecting one type of gangster movie and be right pissed off about it. This isn’t Untouchables Part II. Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck) isn’t the Irish Michael Corleone. Don’t expect the typical gangland bang, bang in the city streets shoot ‘em up of a Bonnie and Clyde homage because it’s not that either…the least of his problems is the danger in stepping out with a mob boss’s favorite side piece…Joe ain’t no “Robin Hood” waiting for a reason to go straight and we’re not revisiting Miller’s Crossing.
The pace of this movie is disjointed. It feels as though you’re watching vignettes more than one cohesive storyline for a large part of the film. The scene edits are too sharp and often the story cuts were too deep. The relationship between Coughlin and his lady love Emma (Sienna Miller) at the beginning of the film happens almost in fast forward and barely gives the audience time to empathize and invest in them as a couple. Since this relationship shapes his motivations for the second half of the movie, it makes some his later moves and decisions slightly less grave. This is also where you realize that beginning voiceover only takes you part way through this tale and that it plays far too large a character in the second half.
Affleck short changed the “show” and undercut the tension needed to truly make the twists and turns resonate. Affleck had himself over explain things (far, far too often) for fear the audience might miss the subtext which in turn often made the dominant point fall short of the mark. Moments that should’ve been heart wrenching were merely moving because character and scene development were cut short or failed to allow the actor’s to dig deep enough to really connect. So many missed opportunities and chances to kick the whole project up a notch were just allowed to drift past.
Affleck (as director) should’ve followed the Spike Lee makes Malcom X model and made a magnum opus to the gangster nior genre and took as much time as he needed to truly do the source material and his cast justice. It felt as though he attempted to include all the scenes flagged as important or compelling in the book. This choice pays great respect to the crime noir genre but no so much a strategy bound to make a great gangster movie. As a director, Affleck forgot his asset as an actor is as a mirror. Joe Coughlin’s best scenes rarely included any dialogue by him. His greatest impact came in the quiet moments where his facial expressions and body language told the tale for him. The most engaging parts of the movie were when others used him as a mirror to reflect their conflict and feeling. Perhaps he should’ve brought in Gavin O’Connor to direct; he seems to have a better sensibility of how to bring out Affleck’s better screen performance.
Simply put, he tried to do too much in far too short a time and ended up with a lesser product because of it. It would be interesting to see what’s on the cutting room floor…
It’s not the mob movie many may have been hoping for but it’s still a pretty good crime noir flick nonetheless.
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.
Cast: Ben Affleck, Elle Fanning, Brendan Gleeson, Chris Messina, Sienna Miller, Zoe Saldana, and Chris Cooper
Written by: Ben Affleck, based on the best-selling thriller by Dennis Lehane
Directed by: Ben Affleck