Movie Review: Live by Night

Gangster drama offers some new settings but lacks the killer instincts

Live by Night (Pod rouškou noci)
Directed by Ben Affleck
With Ben Affleck, Elle Fanning, Brendan Gleeson, Chris Messina, Sienna Miller, Zoe Saldana, Chris Cooper

Everyone loves tales of the Jazz Age and the Roaring Twenties. Screenwriter, director and actor Ben Affleck takes us through the underworld in Boston and Florida in his latest film. Live by Night. It offers some solid entertainment, but in the end comes off as a light version of The Godfather.

The film traces the rise of Irish-American criminal Joe Coughlin (played by Ben Affleck) from a petty crook up through his reluctant association with organized crime.

Boston provides a sort of new setting for this sort of gangster drama, as Chicago and New York are usually depicted. Later, the film moves to an even more colorful locale, Ybor City in Florida, which is shown as a center of liquor production and smuggling. Alcohol in the US was of course illegal at the time.

The film tries to have a grand scale, punctuated by outbreaks of violence. Several issues ranging from the rise of the KKK in the south to the relatively new pornography industry in Los Angeles make appearances in the story, creating a dark panorama of the times.

The Boston section of the film, at the film's start has us one more familiar urban territory, with Coughlin and his small crew trying to stay independent of rival Irish and Italian mobs, while at the same time Coughlin has become involved with Emma Gould (Sienna Miller), the girlfriend of the city's top Irish mobster, Albert White (Robert Glenister). This ill-conceived romance sets up the main action, as Coughlin is eventually forced to leave Boston and set up shop in sunny Florida.

Live By Night now starts to offer some things not seen before in gangster films. Coughlin has to deal with Cubans, who have some vague revolutionary ties, while still caught between the same rival gangs he faced in Boston. On top of that, there is the semi-corrupt lawman Irving Figgis (Chris Cooper) and his starstruck daughter, Loretta (Elle Fanning). He also finds trouble with the Ku Klux Klan.

One theme in the film is that Coughlin perhaps lacks the killer instinct that most mobsters have. The same is true of Ben Affleck's script and direction. It doesn't go in for the kill. Live By Night is a convincing period drama but it lacks that sharp edge that would have made it a great one.

Many of the elements such as the conflict with the KKK offer dramatic promise, but get glossed over too quickly with some narration. A subplot involving heroin and pornography also leaves a few too many questions about how much Coughlin knew and what his involvement was.

To its credit, Live By Night does try to break the mold and offer a very different look at the life of a gangster in the 1920s, but misses the mark a bit by being a touch too laid back.

The re-creation of the era, though, is quite well-accomplished and there are several standout performances including Zoe Saldana as Graciella Corrales, one of the Cubans involved in the rum trade. But even her role is left a bit vague, as there is mention of her fighting for a revolutionary cause but it is never made clear.

Affleck's direction picks up for some of the action scenes, with a couple of tense moments especially near the end, but they don't reach the intensity of similar scenes in the seminal Godfather films from the 1970s. Fans of period crime films may appreciate Live By Night for its new spin on the genre's themes, but it doesn't achieve the classic status it was clearly hoping for.

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