5.5 out of 10
Ben Affleck as Joe Coughlin
Directed by Ben Affleck
Live by Night Review:
It’s not an accident that the modern form of nihilism came of age in the 20th Century; the industrialization of war created a new world of isolation and ennui which old ideas about morality and the sanctity of life had no place in. It’s not an accident either that the art of the Lost Generation appeared in its wake as human beings grappled with the idea that what was sacred really … wasn’t. It’s rich fertilizer to grow drama from and initially it seems like Live By Night plans on doing exactly that in the form of disillusioned soldier Joe Coughlin (Affleck).
Joe — a cop’s (Gleeson) son who lost all perspective on the battlefields of World War I — just wants to live life to the fullest in the time he has and if that includes robbing and cheating people, then so be it. And if Live By Night focused itself on that conflict, it would probably be a good movie – it’s a beautifully devised and designed film – but instead it flails around, continually diverted by new ideas until, like Joe himself, the audience becomes numb to the wonders and horrors in front of them.
There’s a lot to be said for taking new tacks at old genres and Night certainly tries that, moving the gangster action from the typical urban environments of Chicago or New York (or in this case, Boston) to the sunny shores of Florida. The new environment offers a lot of options, both providing a new cultural background to place the crime action against and potentially digging into the changing nature of American society in the modern age. In a world where life can end at levels which could not be previously comprehended, the ability to find value in life which used to be held by religion was cast adrift and some would say is still looking for an anchor.
This both provides an opening for men like Coughlin to make their living with drugs, alcohol and gambling, and for evangelical preachers to stir up community action against such men. Writer-director Affleck has a good track record with similar rich material, particularly with a crime bent, and has shown an affinity for the works of Dennis Lehane, whose novel the film is adapted from and who has frequently exceeded the genre to say something real about modern life. But conception is only half of the artistic equation and as much potential as Live by Night has, it never realizes it.
Tasked by his Italian mafia boss to ensure the flow of Cuban molasses for rum making and shipment to the thirsty North, Joe quickly finds himself enmeshed in the cultural realities of Florida, from the plight of Hispanic immigrants to the hidden power of the Ku Klux Klan and the upswing of big tent revivalism. The falling apart of classic societal structures leaves only the ties between individuals to bind tribes together, which means that the greatest threat to society becomes the differences between individuals. It’s a dilemma Joe’s particular line of work puts him directly in the middle of.
It’s a potentially heady dramatic brew and the assorted cast of high-quality actors are game for the experiment. Gleeson, despite appearing for just a short time, is particularly effective. A lot of that comes down to Lehane’s very potent dialogue and character observations. Many of Night’s scenes are excellent in and of themselves; well designed, well executed with everyone giving their best and providing a few moments that resonate even after the film is over. Chris Messina, almost unrecognizable under a Fedora and terrible mustache, steals every scene he is in.
And yet none of it goes anywhere.
The inability to string these many story threads together into a story, and a lack of desire to focus on Coughlin’s dark side at the risk of making him less of a hero, hobbles all of the quality going into the work. Diving headlong into the cultural morass of his new home, Joe’s mobster duties slowly slip to the wayside as the intermittent suffering and grace he encounters begins to trouble his conscience.
Which sounds intriguing but it needs fleshed-out supporting characters to make it work or what you are left with is a lot of scenes of the lead actor staring out into the void. As good many of the supporting actors are, their characters aren’t really there. The film is so thoroughly focused on Coughlin that nothing else is given any time to breathe. There are plenty of films and plenty of characters which can handle that, but Coughlin isn’t one of them, at least in part because he is always throwing his focus elsewhere, engaging in a hundred different endeavors, none of which connect together to tell a complete story. One could make the argument that real lives don’t either… but Joe Coughlin isn’t a real person leading a real life. He’s a fictional character in a gangster story who occasionally does gangster stuff. The rest of the time he wanders around staring out into the void.
As good as many of the individual bits are, no one seems to have given much thought to how they go together to form a coherent story. Or perhaps they’ve gotten so involved in the trees, they’ve forgotten to step back and look at the forest. In between a classic ’20s gangster opening and a rollicking finale, Live By Night drags as Coughlin tries to figure out what’s important in life while leaving most of his gangster life happening in the background and related by narration. What’s left is an intermittently exciting film which can’t decide what it wants to be and ends up being nothing.