Ben Affleck returns as actor/director in prohibition era gangster flick Live by Night. Based on Dennis Lehane’s novel of the same name, Live by Night stars Affleck as Joe Coughlin, the son of a Boston police captain, who despite his own protestations becomes a notorious gangster. Preferring the term outlaw, Coughlin finds himself prospering from illegal gains while his morality takes a downward spiral.
It’s a story of love, betrayal and power as Coughlin graduates from low level Boston criminal to the bootlegging kingpin of Ybor City. His journey to Florida is unfortunately condensed as Coughlin is battered with an entire film’s worth of plot within the first fifteen minutes. There’s a lot of interesting material at play but it’s compressed into a glorified introduction in order to set up the events further south. By contrast the middle of the film settles with Affleck taking his time to tell his story only for him to scramble about at the end in attempt to tie the many threads together.
Live by Night has many strands that involves Irish mobsters, the Italian mafia, two love interests, devout Christians and the KKK. There’s a lot happening and it’s easy to forget earlier parts of the film, questioning if they’ll have any bearing on the plot later on. This doesn’t make the film a mess by any means, but it does feel rushed at points, specifically at the beginning and the end.
With Affleck also on screenwriting duties, he’s struggled to omit incidents and characters which he appears to feel are vital to proceedings. This is evident in the convoluted ending that wraps up all the loose ends while stretching logic by inserting elaborate plot holes into the dialogue.
Stylistically it’s gorgeous, with Robert Richardson’s cinematography wonderfully capturing the grittiness of Boston while illuminating the beautiful sunshine of Ybor. Affleck shows his strengths as a director with his talent to inject tension into his scenes, which he does to great effect for the most part. With great performances by Chris Cooper, Brendan Gleeson and Affleck himself, there is a constant conflict between the characters that rumbles throughout the film.
The standout performance goes to Elle Fanning as Loretta, the daughter of Ybor’s sheriff who unexpectedly becomes a huge thorn in the side of Coughlin’s expanding business. She portrays a strong and determined woman while betraying a wonderfully delicateness that exposes her as a scared child who is unable to live up to her people’s expectations of her.
Live by Night doesn’t offer anything new to the gangster genre but it’s an often thrilling, if drawn out, tale. The multiple subplots suggest it may have worked best as a mini-series and although it’s not Affleck’s strongest work behind the camera it proves an enjoyable watch.