Live By Night doesn’t really work. It has a lot of good or interesting performances and some really well done scenes, but it doesn’t come together as a cohesive story by the end of it. It wants to be a gangster epic, but in all of its sprawling detail, going from Boston to Tampa and covering a couple decades it struggles to tell a coherent story. Still, there is a lot here to like even if the end result is less than the sum of its parts.
Ben Affleck directs and stars as Joe Coughlin, a WWI vet and son of a Boston Police bigwig who came back from the war disillusioned and became a small time stick-up man. His desire to avoid getting caught up with the real gangsters ends when he starts dating Emma, the boss’s moll. After a bank job goes awry, Joe is caught by both the boss and the police and serves a few years in prison, while Emma is killed in a car accident. After Joe gets out of prison, he follows the boss to Florida to get revenge by ruining his rum running business. From there the movie goes all over the place, with Joe meeting a new love in a Cuban expat (Zoe Saldana), dealing with the KKK, religious groups and interference from his Boston boss. At no point does it acquire anything that could be called narrative momentum.
The biggest problem the movie has is Joe. It isn’t Affleck’s performance, which is solid; it is that there really isn’t a character there. He doesn’t want to be a gangster, until he does. He wants revenge, until he doesn’t. He wants to build a bootlegging empire. Or a casino. Or nothing. He is a void at the center of the movie that he is supposed to be driving. The movie keeps moving, letting Joe interact with a lot of characters, but it never really amounts to anything.
Still, there is a lot of strong stuff here. Joe dealing with the KKK and the Church are interesting because they are not groups built like the gangster businesses he is used to dealing with. He can’t buy off people whose motive is unthinking hate. Or any true believers. He tries to make a deal with the religious leader, only to find that they won’t budge. That pair of encounters does the most to show the kind of man that Joe Coughlin is. When confronted with the hatred of the KKK, he eventually goes to murderous lengths to deal with them. When confronted by the Church he refuses to take that step. He wants to keep thinking of himself as a good man, even as he does bad things. He has lines that he won’t cross, even if they lead to his undoing.
The movie is at its best when Joe is doing his bootlegging work with his number 2 man Dion. They have these sarcastic little side conversations that other characters can hear that add a lot of life to things. The highlight might be the two of them tracking the origin of a stray bullet that hit Joe during a shoot-out. Was it fired by their foe or was an accident by Dion? That stuff works better than the turgid musing on what makes a good man that is never fleshed out enough to really matter.
There are a lot of things to complain about with Live By Night. It is overlong, scattershot and while the setting looks good it doesn’t look lived in at all. South Florida should look warmer than that, especially to a couple of boys from Boston. It has a lot of good actors – Brendan Gleeson, Sienna Miller, Elle Fanning, Zoe Saldana, Chris Cooper, Chris Messina – given very little to do in roles that should have amounted to more. Still, the individual pieces and scenes assembled here are worth watching, though it reeks of a real missed opportunity.