Live By Night is a popcorn movie in a genre that is no longer popular, so Hollywood doesn’t quite know what to do with it. They position it as a prestige movie since ‘30s Prohibition era makes it a period piece, sort of like they did with westerns in the ‘90s. The difference is gangster movies aren’t as nostalgically American as westerns. The old west was about discovery, and lawlessness was freedom. Prohibition was a blight on society and bootlegging not as glamorous as, say, mafia gangster activity in Las Vegas. Live By Night struggles to find what’s relevant and universal about Boston gangsters.
Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck) falls in love with Irish mob boss Albert White (Robert Glenister)’s girlfriend Emma (Sienna Miller). White retaliates but Joe survives and goes to work for rival Italian mob boss Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone). Pescatore sends Joe to Tampa to ruin White’s businesses.
The intrigue of how Joe leverages businesses against White is fairly slow. When sporadic action occurs, the film comes to life a little: an intense car chase with the limitations of old cars, clever cinematography like a stairwell fall, but also using sound effects and violence as a crutch. Most of the drama is in the mafia strong-arming underlings to ruin White, and the violent retaliations back and forth.
These are all hard guys, not just the violence but they also blackmail and many of Joe’s opposition are racist. There is some satisfaction in seeing racists suffer brutal violence. Affleck brings a little irreverence to the gangster intrigue. After a stereotypical gangster scene, Joe and his right hand Dion (Chris Messina) have buddy banter to show they’re not so tough, but only these two close friends and partners get to see that side.
The women all unfortunately suffer to fuel the male journey. This may come from the source material by Dennis Lahane, but if so there’s nothing stopping Affleck from giving them more agency in the adaptation. Maybe there’s nothing he could do for Emma because what do you expect when you sleep with the boss’s girl? Joe meets Graciella (Zoe Saldana) through business but she quickly becomes his girlfriend and then just waits for things to happen to Joe. Loretta Figgis (Elle Fanning) is the most active, because she poses a threat to Joe’s business but still serves a greater role as a reflection of Joe’s guilt.
The production design is generally good. All the cars and fashion are of the era, although the suits look too big for Affleck. The color keeps everything sepia tinted which seems rather obvious. Wouldn’t it be more unique to show what kind of vivid colors may have existed in the era?
Modern Hollywood has been trying really hard to make early ‘20th century gangster movies work, like Public Enemies and Gangster Squad. I’m not sure why it’s such a struggle. It could work as well as The Untouchables which was produced in 1987. Otherwise, it’s a confounding obsession since it alienates much of the audience. Westerns are further back in history but most actors in westerns talk like modern day Americans, since Clint Eastwood at least. The ‘20s and ‘30s have an outdated accent, and add Boston, Irish and Italian accents into the mix and nobody sounds like your neighbor.
Add to that modern day actors trying to speak old timey English and sometimes it sounds awkward. I won’t name names, but some are much better at outdated sentence structure than others. The book may have been written that way, but on film in front of our eyes it’s jarring.
Live By Night isn’t bad. It’s not boring, but the pace is inconsistent, neither slow burn nor rousing epic. It would be worth your money as one half of a matinee double feature, but that’s not how movies play anymore.