I’ll admit, I was confused even by the title of this film, since most of the action takes place in sunny Florida. But as I got deeper into LIVE BY NIGHT, I began to get a sense that the title of the latest film starring, written, and directed by Ben Affleck—GONE BABY GONE (starring brother Casey), THE TOWN, ARGO—was referring more to how his character makes a living off vices (primarily drinking) that are often carried out at night, particularly during Prohibition. Although the film has issues with plotting and pacing, for the most part, it’s an above-average crime drama that does something few such films do—it more or less follows the entire criminal career of a single character.
Affleck’s Irish-American Joe Coughlin wasn’t born into the life, nor did he grow up on the mean streets of Boston in the early part of the 20th century. His father (Brendan Gleeson) was a loyal police officer, and Joe was a soldier during World War I. But when he came back from the war, having grown up around a certain criminal element, he decides to become what he refers to as an “outlaw,” someone outside the Irish and Italian mobs that rule ’20s Boston, who works with his own crew, including best friend Dion (a nice turn by Chris Messina), doing bank robberies or robbing local poker games. But his most dangerous activity is dating Emma Gould (Sienna Miller), the main squeeze of the head of the Irish mob, Albert White (Robert Glenister).
After initially turning down an offer by the Italian mob to work for them, Joe gets his clock cleaned by White after he finds out about the affair, and he goes back to accept the Italian’s offer to run their rum-running trade out of Tampa, which has been faltering. Joe is looking for revenge against White in the process, but he also happens to have a good business sense and is usually the smartest guy in the room in any situation. The rest of the slightly overlong film settles into its Florida setting and examines the machinations of the bootlegging business, which I found mildly interesting, even with a few subplots that don’t pan out satisfactorily.
One thing author Dennis Lehane (on whose novel the film is based) always seems to get right is a sense of place in his stories, and both the Boston introduction and the lush Florida main setting are rife with wonderful period and location details (although I think most of the Tampa scenes were shot in Georgia and California). Affleck also has a gift for casting great faces, even if the actors wearing them aren’t always famous. But what I appreciated about the story is that it wasn’t in a hurry to get to the next shootout or other action sequence. Affleck constructs the moments leading up to the action, and it’s clear that Joe only wants to resort to violence or coercion when he absolutely has to. The film methodically builds a case for Joe’s every explosive moment.
While in Tampa, Joe falls for Graciela (Zoe Saldana), a Cuban woman who, along with her brother, supplies rum to the Joe’s bosses up north. I would have loved to know a bit more about this character, but almost as soon as he takes an interest in her, she becomes a target for Joe’s enemies when they want to threaten him. Far more interesting is Joe’s relationship with the local sheriff (Chris Cooper), who is happy to stand out of the way of his dealings as long as he keeps his business out of the areas of the community that he has an interest in (in other words, white neighborhoods). The sheriff’s sainted daughter, would-be actress Loretta (Elle Fanning), has a bizarre but utterly believable story arc that is intertwined with Joe’s interests in ways he could have never anticipated. The sheriff also has family members who are members of the KKK, and sadly, their response to an Irish-Catholic working for Roman Catholics and dating a Cuban woman in their (red)neck of the woods are all too predictable, but it does add yet another layer to illegal business being conducted in a place like this.
I’ve said this about Kevin Costner before, and I think it applies to Ben Affleck in LIVE BY NIGHT: it’s actually a fairly difficult acting experience to be the relatively calm center of a big film like this, surrounded by more interesting, colorful and often unstable characters. The job of a role like Joe Coughlin is to hold the rest of it together and be the linchpin holding it all together and helping it all make sense. Coughlin is not the type of criminal who attracts attention or trouble, but he conducts business in a place he isn’t wanted, so trouble eventually tracks him down.
LIVE BY NIGHT is not a non-stop actioner, and that’s a nice change. It’s a measured, leisurely stroll through an outlaw’s life that puts more value on character development than slinging lead. That being said, it doesn’t always succeed at making its characters any more interesting by giving them a bit more motivation and backstory, but I appreciate the effort. I can’t promise you’ll like it, but if you have patience and are in the mood for a different type of crime story, this one isn’t half bad.