“Live By Night’s” stylish story of gangsters and redemption sees Ben Affleck reteam with crime writer Dennis Lehane. Their last collaboration, “Gone Baby Gone,” was a story of two detectives embroiled in a professional and personal crisis. This time around the personal and professional intermingle once again, but from the other side of the badge.
Affleck, who stars, directs and wrote the screenplay, is Joe Coughlin, the son of a Boston police captain (Brendan Gleeson) who returned from WWI an outlaw, determined not to take orders from anyone ever again. “No man shall rule another man’s life,” he says. A botched bank robbery lands him in jail, at a reduced sentence thanks to his father’s influence. Jail is a breeze, worse for him is his romantic involvement with flapper Emma Gould (Sienna Miller) who also happens to be the girlfriend of powerful Boston gangster Albert White (Robert Glenister).
Sprung from the lockup and beaten to a pulp by White’s men, Coughlin teams with Boston’s other gang boss, Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone). He’s sent to Ybor City, Florida with the task of taking over the lucrative prohibition bootleg booze business, currently run by White. To that end he leaves a trail of blood and bodies but when this demon rum purveyor tries to find a legitimate way to make cash by building a casino, a religious zealot (Elle Fanning) puts a crimp in his less-than-godly pursuits and interests.
“Live by Night” is a muted, sombre film punctuated by Baptists, bullets, broads and booze. Affleck creates a hard-boiled look at gangster life complete with corruption, betrayal and all the usual crime genre tropes but opens it up to include passion, family and redemption.
Coughlin is an interesting character, a man who coveted his amateur crook status and only turns pro—in other words, becomes a gangster—when he is painted into a corner. He’ll gun you down, but he’s no Scarface. Instead Affleck plays him as a stoic man who leads with his heart and only resorts to violence when all other options are exhausted. Later, when his legacy of violence comes back to haunt him, it packs a wallop.
There’s a lot going on in Ybor City. “Live By Night” tackles racism—the KKK plays a big role in the Florida section of the story—religion—thanks to Fanning’s troubled but angelic character—love—in the form of Graciella Corrales (Zoe Saldana)—loyalty and betrayal. It’s a literary stew of themes, held together by the violence and pulpier aspects of the movie.