I love a lot of Affleck’s work. In fact, it’s safe to say I like most of his work. This one… not so much. This confounds me because it’s Affleck! He’s responsible in one way or another for “Good Will Hunting”, “Gone Baby Gone”, “Argo” and “The Town”. Great films. He usually has a firm grasp of story but that’s not the case here. “Live By Night” is more or less all over the place. To be completely honest, it doesn’t feel like his voice at all. It can’t sit still so neither can you. So I wonder… just went wrong? I can indicate to you a few culprits. It’s too slow and there are too many plot lines and both are working in concert to single handedly ruin this film. It feels as if you’re watching a series of different films in one yet starring the same characters. It’s a mobster/gangster picture but not. There are moments when it is but, well, not to confuse you, these moments are few and far between. It’s hard to even categorize this film.
I’ll try and explain the premise. To start, in voice over, Affleck introduces his character, Joe Coughlin. He’s a soldier. He was miserable as a soldier. The spoiled boy, yes it feels that way, was being told to do terrible things on the battle field and decides that being told what to do wasn’t for him. He will forever be his own boss so he gathers two friends and they become bank robbers. We learn that when it comes to Boston, there are two gangs it’s run by; the Irish and the Italians. Not wanting to become involved with either, for some reason he doesn’t consider himself gangster material but is a criminal… okay, Coughlin, thinks it a good idea to become involved with the girlfriend of the head of the Irish gang, Albert White. They even appear in public together. Immediately, you can see that Affleck didn’t think this through.
You know what’s going to happen and it does. Along with a butt kicking, he gets set up and spends a few years in prison. Now hating White, we have a revenge film where he’ll do anything to work against Albert White. The man who said he’d never work for anyone again is working for the Italians to take over White’s rum distribution… in Florida. We change again. Coughlin enlists the help of the Cubans who were once stealing and instead turns them into assets, who now are happy working with him instead of against.
There are several people trying to take him down but obstacles are easily overcome and Coughlin becomes the king of Tampa. He also has a new woman, Graciela (Saldana), for whom he has absolutely no chemistry. God I wanted to buy into this working for him. It may actually be the worst part of the film.
So moving beyond that, it does, eventually, become a gangster picture again when a double-cross or two are shed and the movie gets exciting. This is what the film had promised to be and it’s nice that it gets back to its roots but it’s not enough and it’s too little too late.
However, what’s also good about “Live By Night”, and I’d say what makes it a worthwhile watch for anyone who wants to study good character actors are some of the performances. Matthew Maher as a member of the KKK is outstanding. Elle Fanning is memorable as a victim of circumstance. Also worth mentioning is Robert Glenister as Albert White and Remo Girone as Italian leader Maso Pescatore. When they’re on screen, you are lost in their performances. They evoke “The Godfather” when they’re present and are quite impressive. More of them would have improved the movie but for some reason we’re spread thinly over a few storylines and you become disinterested in everyone entirely. So, check this out on DVD or wait for VOD, however you get your entertainment these days, but going to the theatre, my preferred outlet, is not my recommendation.