A consistently intelligent (or at least bright), coherently constructed comedy that is on occasion a rather pointed critique of the American education system in the…
Some mediocre movies just don’t make sense; you can never understand why they went into production in the first place. The script was clearly a mess when someone bought it, it was never going to be profitable, and no one involved had the skill to pull it off. Why did they even bother?
“Live by Night” makes total sense. On paper, it seems like a can’t-fail proposition. Not only is director Ben Affleck coming off a Best Picture Oscar for his last directorial effort, “Argo,” but he started his already-impressive directorial career with an adaptation of a novel by the same author of the source material, Dennis Lehane, who not only penned “Gone Baby Gone” but “Mystic River,” “Shutter Island,” and others. The cast is talented from top to bottom, including Oscar winners and charismatic actresses to play opposite Affleck. The sprawling gangster story was given more than enough budget to pull it off, and even landed a release date that typically coincides with awards attention. So, the key question behind “Live by Night” isn’t so much “Why did they bother?” as “What went wrong?”
“Live by Night” is the story of the rise of a relatively low-level mobster named Joe Coughlin (Affleck) during Prohibition. Sorta. Kinda. We’ll get to how this epic story on the page lacked an interesting enough protagonist for the screen later. For now, know that Coughlin is on the rise in Boston, aided a bit by his cop father (Brendan Gleeson, great even in what amounts to basically a one-scene role) and in love with local mob boss Albert White’s (Robert Glenister) daughter Emma (Sienna Miller). After ripping off a few poker games, Joe decides he’s going to rob a bank and run away with Emma, but Albert gets wind of it and double crosses poor Joe, nearly killing him.
Coughlin runs to Florida, but he’s not done with the criminal underworld. In fact, he’s reporting back to White’s Italian nemesis, Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone), and essentially building an empire in Ybor, where he’s taken over the rum trade. In doing so, he meets a girl named Graciela (Zoe Saldana, who does a lot with a little) and comes to a gentleman’s agreement with local lawman Chief Figgis (Chris Cooper), who lets him do what he needs to as long as he stays in the right geographical boundaries. While in Florida, Coughlin runs afoul of the Ku Klux Klan, and meets Figgis’ daughter Loretta (Elle Fanning), who will play a major role in whether or not this Northerner builds a casino set to open just as Prohibition ends.