Live by Night

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Director: Ben Affleck
2 Stars

Ben Affleck wrote, directed and stars in this unrestrained, out of control mess of a movie set in prohibition era Boston and Florida. An ambitious effort – it takes on both Irish and Italian gangster cultures, racism and the Ku Klux Klan, white supremacy, southern ignorance, immigration, drugs and alcohol, gambling, religious hypocrisy and general social injustice. But its contemporary liberalism does not sit well in this time or place.

There’s a ferociously high body-count, matched by an extraordinarily high number of pithy pronouncements and ad hoc speech-making. It means so well. It tries so hard. But after half an hour I had pretty much lost the plot and the next 99 minutes were spent wondering what was going on, why were the characters so inconsistent and since when were women wearing G-strings in the 1920s?

Live by Night opens with Joe Coughlin (Affleck) narrating while he lies bandaged-up on a hospital bed. He recounts how he is a police captain’s son, who got there because the trauma of serving in the Great War made him an outlaw and a thug and well, he was carrying on with his boss’s girl (Siena Miller) and things got really messy. He goes to jail for a few years, gets out and decides to continue being a thug and convinces the head of the Italian mob in Boston to let him go run his operation in Florida. (Nope! Ain’t gonna happen!)

So off he goes – and by immersing himself in the African American and immigrant communities (because they are immediately going to trust a smooth-talking cracker from the north?), Coughlin is soon running dozens of successful speakeasies and shipping rum up north. But because he is Irish and Catholic, the local white people don’t care for him much, especially the Ku Klux Klan, but he whoops their arses. He whoops everybody’s arse. And does it in a spotless white suit.

This flick’s excesses and lack of direction fall directly on Ben Affleck. The triple role of writer, director and star apparently left him without checks and balances and he was too immersed in the project to see it was going off the rails. One cannot fault the cast – Siena Miller was perfectly cast as his gangster girlfriend Emma Gould. Elle Fanning turned in a strangely charming performance as the daughter of the troubled Chief of Police (Chis Cooper) who went to Hollywood and fell in with the wrong crowd and returned home transformed into a religious crusader. But her character behaves incomprehensibly.

Zoe Saldana plays Graciela, a sophisticated Cuban rum runner of Hispanic and African descent who helps him building his Florida empire, then marries him and expects him to go straight. This interracial marriage raises no eyebrows despite strongly enforced laws forbidding interracial marriage or cohabitation in the American South that were not overturned until the 60s and 70s.

On the plus side – cinematography by Tarantino lensman Robert Richardson is gorgeous! From the lush Florida landscapes, to the beautifully lit speakeasy shots, and several glorious shootouts – your eyes will never be disappointed. And if the plot and character development are sorely lacking, there are several white-knuckle action scenes that almost make it worth sitting through.

Veronica McLaughlin

Watch the trailer here: