Boston, 1926. The ’20s are roaring. Liquor is flowing, bullets are flying, and one man sets out to make his mark on the world. Prohibition has given rise to an endless network of underground distilleries, speakeasies, gangsters, and corrupt cops. Joe Coughlin, the youngest son of a prominent Boston police captain, has long since turned his back on his strict and proper upbringing. Now having graduated from a childhood of petty theft to a career in the pay of the city’s most fearsome mobsters, Joe enjoys the spoils, thrills, and notoriety of being an outlaw. But life on the dark side carries a heavy price. In a time when ruthless men of ambition, armed with cash, illegal booze, and guns, battle for control, no one-neither family nor friend, enemy nor lover-can be trusted. Beyond money and power, even the threat of prison, one fate seems most likely for men like Joe: an early death. But until that day, he and his friends are determined to live life to the hilt. Joe embarks on a dizzying…
User Reviews: Ben Affleck returns to Dennis Lehane’s work with this adaptation of Live By Night, the second novel in a trilogy (starting with The Given Day and finishing with World Gone By). Live By Night is a gangster epic which follows the rise to power of Joe Coughlin, a young Boston criminal who ends up running an empire in Florida for the Italian mob. As with The Town and Argo, Affleck casts himself in the leading role and is joined by an impressive supporting cast including Sienna Miller, Zoe Saldana, Elle Fanning, Robert Glenister, Chris Cooper and Brendan Gleeson.
The film begins with Coughlin, as the narrator, introducing himself as a veteran who has returned disillusioned from WW1 to the extent that he refuses to follow rules or take orders from anybody. As such, he now considers himself an outlaw. We see him and his crew embark on daring robberies, including a poker game ran by one of Boston’s major gangsters, Albert White (played with menacing vigour by Glenister) whose moll is having an affair with Coughlin. As repercussions ensue, Coughlin reluctantly takes on a job for White’s mob rivals who send him to Ybor City, Florida, in order to take over their rum import enterprise during the prohibition era. Despite initial protestations that he is not a gangster, does not want to be wedded to the mob or have to take orders from anyone, he eventually concedes to his circumstances and his need for revenge against White, and so quickly sets about establishing his presence, authority and power across Southern Florida. In doing so, he finds love, friendship and enemies as he encounters the wrath of various strands of the Florida populous, ranging from the devoutly religious to the KKK, who take umbrage with his diverse business and personal relations. Naturally, events head toward a bloody and violent showdown.
As an addition to the gangster genre, Live By Night certainly has a uniqueness to it. Thanks to the Florida setting, there is a notable feel and style to the film. Whereas the typical gangster movie might be set in dark and claustrophobic city locations such as Chicago, New York, Detroit or Boston, the story here is told against sun-soaked, colourful and expansive scenery which provides a sense of heat so stifling that it can almost be felt coming through the screen. The film also boasts some sumptuous scenery, particularly of the Florida glades, whilst the early 20th Century town-life of Ybor City really comes to life thanks to excellent design, costumes and vibrant music. It was interesting, too, to see a gangster film based during the prohibition era which told its story from the perspective of the suppliers of the alcohol, rather than the city-based recipients. Additionally, the ethnic diversity of the characters form a foundation for the depiction of the racism that was so prevalent in the southern United States during this period, and this gives Live By Night a distinctiveness within the genre.
Unfortunately, whilst Affleck has proved himself to be a superb director, this is by far his weakest effort. Hastily cut and edited, the first act in particular chops and changes scenes with such frenetic pace and frequency one could be forgiven for feeling queasy with motion sickness. This may very well be a conscious decision by Affleck, as Coughlin’s voice-over thankfully helps provide some degree of constructive narrative, but as a result any provision of context, plot or character development feels completely overlooked; an issue that lingers throughout the film. Too much feels glossed over and rushed, with relationships suddenly formed and underdeveloped, whilst character motivations and intentions are under-explored and largely ignored.
Lehane’s novel does not suffer from the same issues and therefore the source material cannot be blamed here. Indeed, we are introduced to Coughlin in the first novel, The Given Day, and his character, relationships, background, grievances and drive are detailed thoroughly. With Affleck’s film, he introduces us to Coughlin midway through the character’s reality and doesn’t bother to lay a foundation for him. As a result, Coughlin’s relationship with his high-ranking police officer father is barely covered, whereas Lehane uses this as one of the core influences behind his intention to live a life of crime. In the film, Coughlin says how he mourns for a lost love, but this is not something we actually get to see. Again, Lehane uses this as a key impetus for his character. Affleck’s Coughlin, a petty criminal, insists on not becoming a gangster, yet hits the ground running the second he arrives in Florida setting up the empire. There are various other examples which all highlight how the events within Affleck’s film are mostly conceived out of pure convenience.
Compounding this sense of underdevelopment and hastiness is an infuriating lack of any indication of how much time is passing throughout the story. At one point towards the end of the film, Coughlin refers to a girl who died in 1927, and this just highlighted the fact that, aside from references to US Presidents and the end of prohibition, there is nothing to suggest when these events are taking place or indeed how long they are taking.
It’s frustratingly poor storytelling, especially when considering the strength and quality of the source material. Combined with Affleck being so prominent in his leading role, his decision as the director to use so many facial close-ups and lingering shots of Coughlin means that Live By Night essentially feels like a self indulgence piece. Ironically, his brother Casey would arguably have made a better Coughlin and perhaps Affleck would benefit from staying behind the camera next time.
Ultimately, Live By Night is a missed opportunity. It looks fantastic, and there are some excellent action sequences including car chases and shoot-outs, but as a drama it is severely lacking in impact and finesse.