Sometimes it takes a genre fan to make a revolutionary genre movie. Sometimes reverence makes a mess of things. Live By Night lives somewhere in the space between those things. Ben Affleck wears his adoration for crime dramas on his sleeve and sports three hats as the writer, director and star. At its best, his affection for the genre gives Live By Night a slick, noirish vibe with some particularly dynamic supporting characters. At its worst, this affinity leaves the film feeling like a breathless tribute to the titles of legend.It’s possible the source material, a novel of the same name by Dennis Lehane, takes us to this territory in the first place, I can’t confirm nor deny that. Here’s what I do know about what we see on the screen.
Our story follows Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck) through the roaring twenties. He may be the son of a Boston Police Officer, but he’s walked what he calls the outlaw path ever since he got back from the trenches of WWI. This is where the curious code that was the signature of the old hardboiled detectives comes in. You see, over there in the mud, Joe decides that it’s not right that any other man should get to tell another man how to live or die, so he gets into the crime life, but he has no interest in becoming beholden to the criminal code either. He’s going to go his own way. BUT… in another trope straight out of classic noir, that path leads him into the arms of the wrong girl — a mob boss’ moll. And their love affair promises to get him dead — or roped into the gangster life he resisted for so long.
It wouldn’t be much of a movie if our hero got whacked before the first reel was over (though Psycho makes a compelling case for an exception), so cut to Joe heading down to Florida to run the bootlegging business at the behest of an Italian mobster.
In Florida, Live By Night begins to show some of its cracks. Our storyline splinters so that Joe is now building the bootlegging empire, brokering deals, building clubs, finding love. But he’s also making nice with local cops and officials, hatching plans for a casino and fighting the KKK. It’s a lot for one guy who just wants to get his and move on. But the theme we’re supposed to pull out is that this is a good guy forced — by love and the gangsters who stand in opposition to it — to go bad. All of this makes for an overlong story. It lacks the twists and deception of classic noir, or the intended reveals are so telegraphed to anyone familiar with the genre that they lose their punch.
Affleck is still hulked out in Batman shape and he cuts an iconic figure in the suits and hats, but he plays it more softboiled than hardboiled. It’s an unexpected choice for a movie that takes so many cues from its predecessors, but it’s one of the most interesting elements in the uneven blend that is Live By Night. Even as he orders deaths, Joe stands somehow the opposite of all the grizzly gangland murders we’re shown in assorted montages of struggle and strife between opposing sources. Meanwhile, Zoe Saldana takes up the mantle of lady love once Tom gets to Florida. She’s a Cuban already mixed up in the bootlegging world, but her aim isn’t money or power, it’s means to incite change and make the world around her better. She’s largely relegated to a subplot in the bustle of the movie … but, that character in that story, given more action and agency on a feature level feels like a gangster pic worth pining for.
In the whole affair, it’s Elle Fanning who turns in the most compelling work. Her story is dark and macabre, but it has the ginned up hallmarks that made so many femmes fatale absolute scene stealers. Her Loretta isn’t a love interest for Joe, she’s the daughter of the police chief who gets spit up and chewed out by men like Joe in Hollywood and winds up back home with an almost supernatural air and an agenda that threatens to undo all of Joe’s work. This too is rather minor in the scope of the picture, but it feels like the one storyline in many that should have been *the* storyline.
Live By Night has all the elements of a great picture — production value, talent, dynamic characters — but crime is an unforgiving genre, and with all of that on your side, getting it not quite right reads as disappointment. It’s not that Live By Night is so bad, it’s more that it’s not “SO. GOOD.”