LIVE BY NIGHT Review: 6 out of 10 (Messy Mobsters)
LIVE BY NIGHT is by no means a perfect film. It has at least two unnecessary subplots and probably 3 villains too many. But when it does its mob thing, it does it well. It is written, directed, co-produced by, and starring Ben Affleck, based on the 2012 novel of the same name by Dennis Lehane. The film also stars Elle Fanning, Brendan Gleeson, Chris Messina, Sienna Miller, Zoe Saldana, and Chris Cooper. I have truly enjoyed Affleck's other films including GONE BABY GONE, THE TOWN, and ARGO. Here Affleck just bites off a bit more than he can chew...or in this case... film.
Set in the 1920s and 1930s, the story follows Joe Coughlin (Affleck), a glorified bank robber who makes a decision to get mixed up in mob dealings after a woman betrays him to an Irish gang leader and puts him in prison. Joe's taste for revenge puts him in league with the Italians and sends him down to Florida to put the rum running business to work during the Prohibition era. Joe goes to Florida so he can take down the Irish mobster that put him in prison to start with. Joe works to establish strong ties with the Cubans and in doing so falls in love with Graciella Corrales (Saldana) who is part of a brother/sister team of Cubans that distribute rum through Florida. It is a time when "whiteness" is truly only viewed in this country as Anglo-American Protestants. Irish, Italian, Cuban, Puerto Rican, and even Catholic are "othered" in this time and space. Needless to say, one group opposing Joe is the KKK. Yet another is led by a "born again" tent preaching madonna played by Elle Fanning. Both are connected to the local sheriff of the area played by Chris Cooper.
So...you can already see where the film begins to get a bit overstuffed. Certainly a novel that begged for a mini-series, Affleck caannot seem to bear cutting anything out from the book, and the result is a fairly messy bit of storytelling. And yet, when the film can focus its efforts on Joe and his partner Dion (played by Chris Messina) and their overtaking of Florida's crime syndicate, the film really works. It also has plenty of style. Affleck is a strong director and has a great eye for film-making and it comes through with the costumes, set design, lighting, and camera work through the film. There are a few sequences here, including the climax of the film, that offer some riveting content. It is the dead weight of too many players and far too much narrative that weighs it all down. Affleck here is his own worst enemy--and there likely is a good film to be had with the content--or better a limited TV series. But for a mob film that deals in a new playground of Florida's rum running and watching the KKK get their comeuppance it is worthy of a matinee ticket or rental down the road.