The movie, based on the book by Dennis Lehane follows Joe Coughlin (Affleck) a small-time bootlegger from Boston who gets caught in the Italian-Irish gang war between bosses Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone) and Albert White (Robert Glenister) when he falls in love with White’s mistress (Sienna Miller). Eventually, it lands him in Tampa, Florida where he begins to build his own criminal empire.
The story of a gangster’s rise to power we’ve seen plenty of times before, but this film does it in some interesting ways. It’s episodic but in a good true-to-life way, feeling very fluent in its movement from one incident to the next.
This film looks great. Part of that is due to the setting which really highlights the Tampa area, the tropical atmosphere and Cuban culture. We haven’t seen many gangster films set in this part of America during this time, usually it’s New York, Chicago, or if you watch Boardwalk Empire, Atlantic City. So the environment and the kind of characters it produces are refreshing. The cinematography is excellent as well, Ben Affleck again proving to be a very strong and innovative director.
There are a few story issues however. It’s very clear this movie’s based on a book given the pacing, particularly in the first act which is too rapid with its exposition and scene placement to develop Joe much as a character, something I have to imagine the book does better. The first act too is very disconnected from the rest of the film. It ends on a major character moment for Joe, but it doesn’t really change him or his ambitions. Even his initial plan for going to Tampa, being part of a quest of vengeance is eventually given up on and it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
In fact the biggest problem may be with the character of Joe on a whole. Though played adequately by Affleck, the film is advertised with the line: “Joe once was a good man” despite us never seeing that side of him. He fought in the war and we learn that through the opening narration, but the movie makes clear he was a criminal pretty much since he came back from Europe. The inciting incident in his becoming a gangster is never delved into and so there isn’t much investment in his morality. He apparently has a problem with killing people personally but we don’t really understand why. It gives relatively little emotional weight to his character arc. Had he not been already involved in organized crime in the first act it might have worked better. But it’s a major character oversight like this that doesn’t make it as great as Road to Perdition or Boardwalk Empire where the motivations and history of the lead figures were crucial to the audience sympathizing with them.
The supporting cast is filled with really good talent though. In addition to Miller, the wonderfully detestable Glenister, and a surprising Girone, Chris Messina plays Joe’s right-hand man Dion while Zoe Saldana plays another love interest Graciela. For what we see of him, Brendan Gleeson is great as usual as Joe’s police chief father, Chris Cooper plays the disciplined chief of Tampa, and Elle Fanning shows some surprising capability as his daughter. Titus Welliver and Anthony Michael Hall even appear in this movie, and the whole cast works together naturally.
The action scenes are pretty good too. As a film like this promises, we get some good shoot-outs, and though not as bloody as they could more accurately be, they are violent and impactful. As is expected, some deaths act as punctuations, others are more drawn out. And sometimes we get gangs running through a building firing small revolvers and tommy guns.
Live by Night isn’t a fresh take on the gangster genre and suffers for the significant character problems of its protagonist, a protagonist on whom this whole story hinges. But it does offer plenty of enjoyable performances, a look at the prohibition period from an unusual vantage point, some good action and overall direction. It may not be entirely entertaining if you’re not curious about the era, and the pacing through the second act is more akin to The Godfather than a more action-heavy gangster film, but it is very well-made and though not quite the Oscar calibre it’s probably going for, I definitely had a good enough time with it.