FILM REVIEW – LIVE BY NIGHT. With Ben Affleck, Elle Fanning, Brendan Gleeson, Zoe Saldana, Chris Cooper. Written and directed by Ben Affleck. Rated R for strong violence, language throughout, and some sexuality/nudity. 128 minutes.
As time goes by it’s becoming apparent that Ben Affleck is more of a character actor than a star, unlike his longtime friend Matt Damon or, increasingly, his brother Casey. However as a director he may prove to be the biggest star of all. With movies like “Gone Baby Gone,” “The Town,” and “Argo,” he has tackled complex stories and turned them into compelling films.
With LIVE BY NIGHT, he returns to Dennis Lehane territory (after “Gone Baby Gone”), with a tough-minded but ultimately sentimental gangster film set in the latter years of Prohibition. Joe Coughlin (Affleck) returns from Europe after World War I utterly disillusioned. Son of a high-ranking official (Brendan Gleeson) in the Boston Police Department, Coughlin is a self-styled “outlaw.” He has no desire to joins the organized mobs of Albert White (Robert Glenister) or Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone), but pulls off robberies with his two buddies. Coughlin is living an especially risky life, as his girlfriend Emma (Sienna Miller) is White’s mistress.
The first act is set in Boston, and Affleck, who also wrote the screenplay, has fun with the locations and matter-of-fact corruption of the era. A scene where his father bargains with a prosecutor (Clark Gregg in a cameo) speaks volumes on how getting what you want turns on learning what other people want kept hidden.
Coughlin ends up throwing in his lot with Pescatore, looking for vengeance against White, and is sent to Tampa to handle a rum-running operation. This is where the story echoes our time, as Coughlin navigates a world where Cuban emigrants control the rum, and the Ku Klux Klan hates Catholic Irish-Americans like him as much as blacks, Jews, and Hispanics. The corruption takes on a Southern patina as well. Local police chief Figgis (Chris Cooper) makes it clear that as long as Coughlin keeps his business activities to a specific section of Tampa rarely patronized by respectable citizens, he’s willing to look the other way.
Indeed, this is the fine line that is walked not only by Figgis, but by Couglin himself and, subsequently Figgis’s daughter (Elle Fanning). Coughlin makes threats and payoffs, eventually having to kill, but he also wants to lead a “normal” life with Graciela (Zoe Saldana), the strong-willed sister of his Cuban business partner. On one level, the movie is the journey of Coughlin’s moral education. As this is a gangster film, there will be a lot of bullet-ridden bodies along the way.
As director, Affleck keeps a steady pace, making sure to play fair with the audience by setting up the film’s twists without tipping his hand. He also gets some strong performances from his cast, particularly the film’s three female characters, each are mixtures of light and dark motives, which is to say, they’re recognizably complicated and human. As an actor, Affleck seems to have come to terms that he’s more of an “everyman” than a “star,” and has learned to let the people around him have the showy roles to which he gets to react.
“Live By Night” doesn’t so much break new ground in the gangster film as deepen explorations into areas opened by others. As such, it’s a solid entry for fans of the genre, and for those enjoying watching the flowering of Affleck’s directing career. •••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His new novel, Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel, will be released in next month. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.