Mark Reviews Movies

Live by Night


2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Ben Affleck

Cast: Ben Affleck, Zoe Saldana, Chris Messina, Chris Cooper, Elle Fanning, Sienna Miller, Matthew Maher, Remo Girone, Robert Glenister, Brendan Gleeson, Miguel J. Pimentel

MPAA Rating: R (for strong violence, language throughout, and some sexuality/nudity)

Running Time: 2:08

Release Date: 12/25/16 (limited); 1/13/17 (wide)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | January 12, 2017

There are a few—let's call them—quirks within Live by Night that occasionally show promise. Otherwise, this is a fairly familiar tale of a criminal whose rises and falls seem to be dictated more by the needs of a plot than by anything about the character or his surroundings. The screenplay's few more intriguing turns—those quirks—are the ones that are localized. There's a specificity to the time—the Prohibition era—and place—Florida via Boston—in these particular developments that the rest of the movie never matches.

These plot moves don't necessarily work, either, on account of the way the movie's larger priorities overshadow them, as well as the way each of those intriguing developments is rushed to get back the motion of the central plot. The result is a generic crime drama that offers flashes of how it could have been more—or, at least, slightly different.

The movie is written and directed by Ben Affleck, who stars as a two-bit robber whose desire for revenge leads to hubris that puts that vengeance on the backburner. In the final analysis, it's the character's ambition that causes the most damage. Affleck's screenplay (based on the novel by Dennis Lehane) sees the whole vengeance thing as an inescapable and sometimes justified component of this way of life.

At his best, then, Affleck's Joe Coughlin is an amoral actor in a system that in which morals are a hindrance. He cannot be blamed for what he does, because he has no other choice.

Joe begins as a robber—stealing from banks and backroom poker games organized by the Irish mob. He wants no part in such organizations as the one run by Albert White (Robert Glenister), although he has no problem sleeping with the mob boss' moll Emma (Sienna Miller). The boss finding out about the affair would be a death sentence for them both. That's what seems to happen, at least to Emma. Joe ends up in prison for three years for a bank robbery that resulted in the deaths of three cops (The movie's action sequences may use the tools and weapons of the period, but their execution is in the modern fashion of overkill).

After being released from prison, he seeks the counsel of Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone), the head of the Italian mob in Boston whose empire has expanded to Florida while Joe was behind bars. Pescatore offers Joe a deal: He'll let Joe get his revenge on Albert, but he will have to become part of Pescatore's organization. Joe takes the deal and makes his way to Tampa.

The odd thing is how Affleck tips the scales in the character's favor, presenting him as a man of some standards, if not morals. He spends the first section of the movie as an independent man who refuses to become anyone's for-hire thug. He eases on that only when the necessity of revenge requires it of him, but even then, he runs Tampa the way he wants.

The plot, as such, follows Joe as he builds Pescatore's rum-running empire in the Tampa area. The ethno-politics of the region mean that everyone of one group—Italians, Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, the local whites—either distrusts or outright hates the others. Joe's business is with the Cubans, who manufacture the rum. He falls for Graciela (Zoe Saldana), a rum manufacturer with a philanthropic mind.

The business end of this proceeds as one would expect: Joe's fortune increases on account of lots of dealing and plenty of murder. The first, somewhat unlikely development comes when he encounters his first major obstacle to business: the Ku Klux Klan. They don't take kindly to an Irishman, who's working for Italians, doing business with Cubans to keep the speakeasies running. Emphasizing the racial bigotry of the period, though, turns out to follow the same routine as the rest of Joe's dealings. Furthermore, the screenplay keeps the characters who are most affected by such prejudice out of the conflict. The subplot mainly exists—beyond the plot stuff—as a way to elevate Joe from amoral criminal to hero of civil rights. Needless to say, neither he nor the movie earn it.

The other unexpected development takes a religious angle, as a young preacher (played by a very good Elle Fanning) condemns Joe's idea of bringing gambling to Tampa, in anticipation the end of Prohibition. There are a pair of scenes between the two—the gangster and the preacher—that hint at a philosophical debate underneath the conflict. A hint, though, is all for which Affleck has time. The movie's central philosophy is that everyone gets what's coming to him or her, usually in ways that the person doesn't expect (Of course, this doesn't account for all the people who don't deserve what they get because of Joe).

Except we do expect it all here, because Affleck's approach to the screenplay is repetitive. As a director, his approach to the material—not to mention his one-note performance—is all about attitude and posturing. The main attitude of Live by Night is one that's dismissive of anything that might break from the routine.

Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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