on Christmas Day and expands into wide release January 13, 2017.
Oscar-winning filmmaker Ben Affleck reunites with Gone Baby Gone author (and fellow Masshole) Dennis Lehane for the period crime drama Live by Night, an ambitious but unwieldy adaptation of the latter’s novel of the same name. Live by Night is arguably director Affleck's first merely good film instead of a great one, which means he still has one hell of a batting average among actor-directors.
This sprawling saga follows World War I vet-turned-criminal Joe Coughlin (a rather impassive Affleck), who is carrying on an affair with Emma Gould (Sienna Miller), the moll of an Irish mobster at war with Boston's Italian Mafia. When that all goes violently awry, Joe finds himself in the employ of mafioso Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone), an act of submission Joe never thought he'd commit again after following others in the Great War.
However, going to work for the Mafia also changes Joe’s life in some unexpectedly happy ways. Sent to Tampa to run Maso's criminal operations down there (namely, the bootlegging of "the demon rum"), Joe is exposed to a whole new world and its many Latino communities. He soon falls for Graciella Corrales (Zoe Saldana), a Cuban expatriate who helps run an operation that’s integral to Maso’s bootlegging.
Joe and Graciela’s interracial romance catches the attention and wrath of the local Ku Klux Klan. To complicate matters even further, the KKK are connected to various local law enforcement and political figures on the take from the bootleggers, all of whom stand to gain from the mob's longterm plan to build a casino and introduce legal gambling in Florida once Prohibition inevitably ends. And as with so many tales of Catholic criminals, Live by Night is also a story about sin and redemption or, as Joe's cop dad once warned him, "What you put out into this world will always come back to you, but it never comes back how you predict."
Live by Night strains to cover so many things that novels, miniseries, or movie trilogies have time for that it rushes through all these various, intriguing elements without exploring most of them beyond a cursory level. Imagine two seasons of Boardwalk Empire cut down to fit a 140-minute movie, or the entire Godfather trilogy squeezed into a single, shortened film. Characters become thumbnails, especially Graciela, whose later concerns over her husband's dark deeds seems contrived given she was already involved in organized crime alongside him.
Affleck’s film reminds me of Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America, a similarly epic crime drama that was shot as a far longer experience than was released theatrically, an abridged version that only hinted at the masterpiece buried in there. Given that Scott Eastwood and Titus Welliver's roles have been entirely cut from this theatrical release, perhaps there's a longer, more fully realized version of Live by Night that might eventually see the light of day a la Once Upon a Time in America. Or, perhaps Live by Night should’ve been a cable series instead where its many morally complicated characters and their subplots could've received the full weight and examination they deserve.
I liked that Joe perceived himself as an outlaw rather than a gangster, an important distinction that separates the likes of bank robber John Dillinger from Al Capone organized crime-types. Joe is reminiscent of James Caan’s character in Michael Mann's Thief, an independent operator looking to extricate himself from the clutches of the syndicate he’s entangled with.
The film has several exciting, well-executed old-timey car chases and bootlegger shootouts throughout, with everyone looking quite dapper as they rob and kill. The early Boston sequences are appropriately cold and grey-looking to contrast with the more colorful, vibrant latter two acts. The Boston section also establishes Joe’s love for gangster moll Emma Gould. Sienna Miller is suitably duplicitous in the role, but Emma's unlikability undercuts the emotion we’re supposed to feel over the fallout from their romance.
Chris Cooper brings a wounded integrity to his role as an increasingly morally conflicted Florida lawman whose daughter (Elle Fanning) becomes a tent revival preacher. Fanning’s few key scenes are an important subplot that takes the film's subtext of sin and redemption and makes them explicit. Fanning’s character and storyline alone would've filled an entire season had Live by Night been adapted for the small screen, but here they’re boiled down to their essentials while losing much of the dramatic weight the story clearly requires.
Narration is employed to try to give insights into events and characters, but it comes across more as a cheat than a justifiable narrative choice. We’re simply told why something is important. All of which, again, speaks to the film trying to squeeze a very large portrait into a frame that simply isn’t the right size. There are also a string of endings that chip away at the thrill offered by the film's bloody climax.
Among the supporting cast, Brendan Gleeson shines in his few scenes as Joe's Boston Police Deputy Superintendent father, while a nearly unrecognizable and paunchy Chris Messina offers solid support as Joe's loyal but underdeveloped lieutenant. Smaller but no less important roles include Robert Glenister as Joe’s Irish mob boss archenemy, Matthew Maher as a KKK member violently disrupting Joe's affairs, and Anthony Michael Hall as a Southern go-between for the various Floridian criminal factions.
Director-star Ben Affleck’s Live by Night boasts impeccable casting, period recreation, action set-pieces, and cinematography, but it’s marred by a disjointed narrative and some choppy pacing. It meanders, short-shrifts several key characters and subplots, and simply has too many things to juggle in two-plus hours.