Boston 1926: we’re in the thick of the roaring 20s. Booze is in abundance and so are gunfights and car chases, but one man wants to be somebody in a town of nobodies. Alcohol prohibition has given scope to a legion of underground distilleries, speakeasies, gangsters and corrupt cops. Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck) is the youngest son of a prominent police captain. He enjoys the luxuries and notoriety that come with being an outlaw, having graduated to the payroll of the city’s most revered gangsters.
But to live the American Dream carries a heavy price. In an era when ruthless men of ambition and immorality battle for power, nobody can be trusted. For men like Joe, prison and an early death seem absolute. Until that day comes, Joe and his crew are set to live each day like it’s their last. Joe climbs the ladder of organized crime that spans from the jazz clubs of Boston to Tampa’s Latino quarter to the rum-running streets of Cuba.
Live By Night is a good mob movie with a varied cast of loyal associates, callous adversaries, femme fatales, fanatical evangelists and cruel Klansmen who are all battling for a piece of the America Dream. This is a brutal love story but it’s also a tale of retribution, redemption and capitalism, and that is only but a snapshot of an era where sin was a cause for celebration and doing the right thing was a cause for getting whacked. In this world of cops and robbers, it’s kill or be killed. It’s really that simple. Joe Coughlin (Affleck) says “you don’t think I’m strong enough” to which Graciela (Zoe Saldana) replies “I don’t think you’re cruel enough.” In this world, you have to be cruel and utterly without mercy.
As good as I think Live By Night was, the era of mob movies is past its sell by date. Movies like this are lost on today’s generation of cinema-goers. We saw that with the flop of Martin Scorsese’s religious epic, Silence. Unless it’s the next comic book movie or Star Wars, you really can’t predict on whether you will break even. Moreover, this film is a 20s period drama and it was sure in hell going to flop, no matter how good it was. Unless it’s the next Scarface or another Goodfellas, the mob genre won’t get the attention it deserves. With the added effect of it being a period drama, Live By Night was doomed from the start.
I really enjoyed this film. From start to finish, I was engaged and I didn’t find it to be the snooze fest that many are making it out to be. The car chases and gunfights were great to watch and I found it interesting that they had an added comic book element to them. Furthermore, I liked the blend of nationalities in a mob drama that took places in different location which gave the Ku Klux Klan presence more bite. I’m glad that the Klan wasn’t sugar-coated like numerous past interpretations. It showed them as fear mongering racist hustlers with deep pockets because that’s what they were. I couldn’t ask for anything more than that.
This is by no means Affleck’s best film but it’s still a good mob flick at that, but not without flaw. I think certain characters could have been explored more, including: Loretta Figgis (Elle Fanning), Emma Gould (Sienna Miller) and Captain Coughlin (Brendan Gleeson). Out of those three, I loved Elle Fanning’s character the most. She added a religious presence to a world wrought with sin and immorality. For a while now, I’ve been keeping a watchful eye on the activities of Elle Fanning (Neon Demon). She seems to be in everything at the moment and she’s fast becoming one of my favourite rising stars and I can’t wait to see her in 20th Century Women next month. I implore her to keep up the solid work.
Morally bankrupted by his experiences in the First World War, Joe is a man whose soul is in turmoil. He’s a man who is picking and choosing what social conventions to follow and which ones he can break. Is that borderline sociopathic? Maybe or maybe not, but he has a strong code of conduct, despite walking the tightrope between black, white and the grey areas in the life he leads with the warring mob families. The Irish are led by Albert White (Robert Glenister) and the Italians are led by Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone). Warring families are nothing we’ve not seen before. Nonetheless, I won’t complain at seeing it again. It is a mob drama after all.
Affleck’s performance with the rest of the cast is spot on. He plays a gangster with a conscience, unheard of in that line of business which often lands him in trouble with Pescatore when he doesn’t kill Figgis (Fanning) when she begins preaching to the masses about the ungodliness of gambling. Whilst we are subjected to many unethical goings-on in this film, I couldn’t help but notice the stunning costumes. Also, we are witness to excellent hair and makeup too. The aesthetic features are on point, in addition to numerous killer set pieces which I couldn’t stop ogling at.
All in all, Live By Night is a good movie, but it’s not a great one. It’s engaging and punchy, and beautiful to look at with some very good acting performances. If you can get to the cinema to watch it, I say go ahead. If you can’t, it wouldn’t be the end of the world.