Live by Night

by Michael Cox

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday January 13, 2017

Zoe Saldana and Ben Affleck star in 'Live by Night'
Zoe Saldana and Ben Affleck star in 'Live by Night'  

In "Live by Night" Ben Affleck plays Joe Coughlin, a Prohibition-era thug who never wanted to get involved with the mob and swears his only motivation is his love, but who ends up controlling a majority of the illegal rum trade along the East Coast.

Joe's reluctant relationship to organized crime always compromises the people he loves. His girlfriend, Emma Gould (Sienna Miller), is the mob boss's woman on the side, and his dear father, Brendan Gleeson, is the police captain. This brings into question the legitimacy his original motivation.

But Joe's unconventional integrity allows him to be a criminal. The rewards of crime come quickly, and the excuses always seem noble: If he joins the Italian mob boss (Remo Girone), he can get revenge on the Irish leader (Robert Glenister) who may have killed his girlfriend, and if he builds a mob presence in Florida, it ultimately quells the power of the KKK in the South.

But justifications run dry when business sense runs counter to his conscience. And he must make a decision to spare the life of fanatic but otherwise innocent young woman whose evangelicalism will effectively quash his industry, Loretta Figgis (Elle Fanning), or please the powers that be. But if he does this he will not only lose his shirt but piss off the most dangerous forces within the mob, and he will compromise his life and the life of his wife, Graciella Corrales (Zoe Saldana).

Affleck not only acts in and directs this historic thriller, but he has also adapted the screenplay from the book by Dennis Lehane. A good adaptation of a novel gives production design and acting the opportunity to fill in details from the book that are necessarily missing from the movie script. A bad adaptation makes the audience question how left-out elements of the plot led us from A to B. This script, unfortunately, fits into the latter category. And the missing moments of the film all seem to involve the potentially fascinating female characters, which are each, ultimately, reduced to some kind of damsel in distress in this picture.

But the film shines in its unbelievably sumptuous production design (by Jess Gonchor) and cinematography (by Robert Richardson). The details put into the re-creation of Depression-era Boston are something to behold; Affleck clearly and admirably pays homage to his native home in these scenes. The sensuous landscapes of Florida (shot in Georgia) are no less than breathtaking.

Many talented character actors buoy up this movie, in addition to the little-seen but deeply-felt presence of Gleeson and Girone. Chris Cooper plays the ethically tortured Sheriff of Tampa, Irving Figgis, and Chris Messina appears as Joe's goofy Italian sidekick, Dion Bartolo.

"Live by Night" is not an amazing movie, but as a testosterone-driven piece of genre narrative this film has many moments of humor, style and character acting bravado that make it a pleasure to watch, and satisfactorily drive the viewer to the next plot point.


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