Strong performances by supporting actors and actresses, wonderful choreography, and exciting action make Live by Night (2016) a thrilling gangster flick despite Ben Affleck’s uninspired acting. Affleck adapted the screenplay from a novel of the same name by Dennis Lehane. The film’s genuine look and feel is no doubt attributable to the source material. Although the characters are not based on real people, they might as well have been. For his part, Lehane wrote the novel about rum running to show the “sexy side of Prohibition.” Exotic, tropical locales, flashy clothes, fast cars, and excessive violence characterize both the novel and the film.
This sprawling movie spans several decades and locations, from Boston to south Florida. As the film opens, Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck) is a WW1 veteran and bank robber in Boston. He falls in love with Emma Gould (Sienna Miller), mistress of Irish mob boss Albert White (Robert Glenister). Italian mob boss Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone) tries to blackmail Coughlin into killing Albert White. Unfortunately, Emma betrays him and White tries to have both her and Coughlin killed.
After spending several years in prison for a bank robbery gone wrong, Coughlin approaches Pescatore and asks him to help get revenge on Albert White. Pescatore sends him to Ybor City, Tampa, Florida, where White had set up his own operation, to run his speakeasies and muscle out White.
While there, Coughlin meets and marries a Cuban woman named Graciela Corrales (Zoe Saldana). He battles the KKK, other gangsters, hostile businessmen, and Evangelical Christians in his pursuit to corner the rum market and ultimately get Florida to legalize gambling so the mob can run its casinos. Coughlin and Pescatore come to blows in a bloody climax and Coughlin retires from his life of crime.
Live by Night is ultimately about “what goes around, comes around.” In several instances, characters’ past decisions come back to haunt them, and their bad behavior is repaid with pain, suffering, and loss. No one escapes this movie unscathed, except perhaps for Coughlin’s son, who I assume goes on to lead a normal life.
The film’s realism is refreshing, as is its style and attention to detail. Its chase scenes are fast and exciting, and even the report of Tommy guns is genuinely loud and intimidating. To be sure, there are a lot of clichés in this movie, but the clichés work—most of the time.
In Live by Night, a conflict erupts between the mafia and the Ku Klux Klan in Florida. The 1920s Klan was predominantly located in the Midwest, not the South, but they did vehemently uphold Prohibition. A war between bootleggers and the Klan in Southern Illinois lends historical precedent to such a subplot. Unfortunately, Live by Night fell back on well-worn clichés about dumb, inbred hicks and missed an opportunity to add historical depth and nuance.
I also found the love triangle subplot unconvincing. Infatuation with Emma Gould, a free-spirited Irish flapper, supposedly ties together Joe Coughlin and Albert White in Boston. After Coughlin and Emma’s affair is revealed, White intends to kill both of them. Coughlin and White believe Emma drowns when the car she was in plunged into the river. Later, in Florida, Coughlin discovers Emma is alive and living in Miami when he sees her in the background of a photograph.
Albert White also lives in Miami. Naturally, I assumed Emma followed him there or they reconnected somehow—because otherwise, why would she move to a city where her former lover was running a powerful criminal organization? When Coughlin confronts White with evidence of her apparent survival, however, the revelation completely shocks him. It’s made clear earlier in the film that White considers Emma to be a disposable possession. Even if he believed her dead, why would he care if she was alive? Nothing we’ve seen indicates he was in love with her.
Despite these flaws, Live by Night is a thoroughly entertaining gangster film populated by an interesting cast of characters. Whereas, in Public Enemies (2009), Johnny Depp’s personality overshadowed that of his costars, Ben Affleck has no such effect. His costars are left to shine as he often fades into the background. Elle Fanning receives an honorable mention for her portrayal of fallen angel-turned prophet Loretta Figgis. Brendan Gleeson also gave a strong performance as Joe Coughlin’s police captain father, Thomas Coughlin.