Live by Night
It’s hard to be a good man in a tough world. It’s also hard to be a fresh movie in a well-worn genre. “Live By Night” is a good gangster film, but it’s not untouchable.
The film follows the story of Joe Coughlin, played by Ben Affleck, a disillusioned Irish WWI veteran turned bank robber turned gangster for the Italian mob at the heart of prohibition. Over the course of the film, he fights regular police officers, corrupt police officers, other gangsters, the KKK, and the man who killed a woman he loved –– all in a quest to be the king of Florida’s mob community.
The film lacks a clear antagonist and suffers a loss of focus as a result. What Coughlin wants is never really clear in the film: revenge? power? love? All of the above? The overall effect is more a series of adventures for our mobster than a cohesive whole.
It feels like Affleck, who also directed and wrote the film, is fighting to avoid predictability. Anytime you think you have where the plot is going figured out, the film switches gears. Predictability is avoided, but at the expense of emotionally connecting with any one plot line.
The odd part is, outside of its poor plot consistency, it’s a good film. The visuals dazzle as the scenes move from 1920’s Boston to Florida. There’s a particularly stunning landscape shot of Florida’s waterways at sunset. The costumes are fun and creative. The dialogue is snappy. The performances are all on point. There’s a lot of good pieces that just didn’t manage to fit together as well as they could have.
While the plot lines are underdeveloped, they’re all intriguing, particularly when Coughlin runs afoul of the KKK. The gangster community of Florida is made up of Cubans, Hispanics, African Americans, and led by the Irish Catholic Coughlin. The Klan takes issue with these people poisoning their perfect communities with demon rum, unless they can get a cut of the action. Gangsters have always held a special place in the American imagination, and it’s really satisfying to watch them beat-up Klan members.
If you’re a diehard gangster film fan or want a night out with some outlaws, check it out. If not, this is one film that can sleep with the fishes.