I get the feeling this movie started off life as something more. Like it might have been Ben Affleck’s shot at a real epic crime drama like Once Upon a Time in America or maybe The Godfather series. It has all the hallmarks of wanting to be a longer movie, documenting the rise of one man in crime over a long period of time. All the same though, I liked Live by Night quite a bit in spite of the very mixed reception it got.
Taking place during a ten year period between the 1920s and 30s, the movie tells the tale of Joe Coughlin, played by Ben Affleck. Showing how he goes from a small time thief to near enough the head of the mob across the east coast. What made the movie interesting to me is that, because it’s set during an era of prohibition during America, most of Affleck’s crimes and money making are centred about bootlegging and gambling.
It depicts Affleck’s character a man with pretty strong morals, for a career criminal at least. He is really adverse to hurting people who he feels don’t deserve it. The interesting conflict for me is when events become more dire for him and his business. He is tempted to cross lines he wouldn’t think of doing in his earlier days, compromising who he is. It’s a nice little moral dilemma I always appreciate and I’m happy with how it was resolved.
The epic story begins in Boston, with Affleck running a small gang of criminals, robbing banks and high stakes poker games. All while having an affair with a local Irish Mafia boss’s girlfriend. Things go south and Affleck is lucky to only end up in prison. Much of this early part of the movie feels pieced together, like large parts of it were chopped out to cut the length of the movie. Some integral parts are told by passing mention in voiceover, when it feels like the film could have easily shown them, even in brief scenes.
It’s not like the movie didn’t make sense as a result, but it all felt rushed during that first act. It’s not that surprising though when the editor was told by the director (Affleck) that he didn’t want the movie to be too long. Why though, surely this was a movie that called for a runtime around the three hour mark. Maybe this is what he felt, or maybe the studio pressured him from above, who knows. Maybe it will come out at some point if we get a much longer Directior’s Cut when the blu-ray comes out.
Once Joe Coughlin is released from prison and moves to Florida, that’s when the movie really picks up. The whole second act would be very suited to being a high production television series. Joe runs the mob out of Florida and must tackle problems like the KKK, the Cubans and local business owners one at a time in order to keep his interests going. Each scene during this middle act of the movie is captivatingly shot and acted. It jumps between quieter scenes and action smoothly and is engrossing.
It’s ending does bear a few of the same issues as the beginning, feeling like it’s racing towards those final credits. It’s not as bad as the movie’s first act, but it’s not a great parting tone for its audience. That being said, this movie is shot amazingly. The acting is suburb and all of the cast bring their A-game. It’s a great character study about a man who manages to keep his hands as clean as possible while making a life during one of the many dark periods of American history.
I found an irony in this movie coming out when it did though. With Donald Trump recently taking office in America and constantly spouting his campaign slogan: “Make America Great Again”. And yet, in this movie I hear Afflek talk about how America is a broken country on several occasions. The mobs rule; smuggling booze, murdering one another over violence, all in the height of the depression, it makes me wonder when it was the last time America was actually great, but it seems like it’s been a while.
I’d recommend Live by Night. Maybe not at the cinema, but efforts should be made to see it whenever possible. Ben Affleck continuing his directorial career strongly and giving us another solid movie.