Live By Night (2016)

Live By Night first published by RealCrime Magazine

Boston, 1926. Irish-American Great War Veteran Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck) is breaking bad: having determined never again to serve anyone but himself, he runs a small stick-up operation, to the horror of his policeman father (Brendan Gleeson). A romantic entanglement sees him caught in a turf war between rival Italian and Irish gangs, with him, inevitably, reluctant to take sides. After a prison stint, he heads down to Tampa, Florida where, with revenge on his mind, he muscles into the bootlegging business, takes on the local Ku Klux Klan, finds love with a Cuban woman (Zoe Soldana) and his own moral boundaries with the evangelical church, before finally facing a karmic reckoning of sorts.

Directed by Affleck and adapted (like Affleck’s debut Gone Baby Gone) from a novel by Dennis Lehane, Live By Night concerns a rugged individualist’s rise in America’s Prohibition and Depression days, and the emergence of America’s ethnic underclass. It is an ambitious period piece, clearly intended to be Affleck’s Once Upon A Time In America. Yet those ambitions are undermined as Affleck dutifully references other classic chronicles of America’s criminal history – Miller’s Crossing, The Godfather Part II, There Will Be Blood, Scarface, Casino, even Django Unchained – without ever quite matching his models’ high standards. All the right beats are here – car chases, shootouts, romance, vengeance, intrigue, double crosses, violent intersections of class and race, the sheer narrative pleasure of an individual’s ascent (with moral consequences), and the sense that this is the story of a nation. Yet somehow, the pacing feels off, the characters seem bland, and Live By Night never quite lives up to the sum of its parts. 

© Anton Bitel