To be fair, he was only adapting a screenplay for Dennis Lehane’s 2012 novel Live by Night. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because Lehane is also responsible for Mystic River and Shutter Island, as well as the short story The Drop was based on, which he also wrote the screenplay for. If that name doesn’t sound familiar, Google “nearest library.” Yes, we still have those things around.
Live by Night is the story of a gangster, Joe Coughlin, who does gangster things for 129 minutes. Those 129 minutes cover a few years of Joe’s life during the Prohibition Era and includes bank robberies, two girlfriends, a lot of bootlegging rum, two mob bosses, Joe getting his ass kicked, car chases, some KKK assholes, a lot of dead people, and Elle Fanning. Oh, and all of this happens in Boston, then Tampa. If that sounds like too much for a movie, that’s because it is. But only if you care that much about plot.
(Some SPOILERS ahead unless you read the book. Yeah, I laughed a little too as I typed that.)
You know how drunk people sometimes think they're being stealthy?
Maybe the book is better, but the film was very scattershot (no pun intended). The first act of the film covers everything you saw in the preview and that’s not a good thing because the rest of the movie is basically a different movie. Emma is the blond woman you saw, but the movie isn’t about Joe and Emma. Emma is cheating with Joe on her mob boss boyfriend, Albert White (Robert Glenister), then sells out Joe to Albert just as they are running away together. This is never adequately explained beyond one of Albert’s goons seeing them, but Joe and Emma were barely trying to hide it. At one point, they are having dinner together in a busy, fancy restaurant (they would hook up when Albert was out of town). And, besides, wouldn’t Albert have one of his men escorting her around since his competition would probably be interested in kidnapping her for leverage? Sorry, I’m caring too much about the plot.
Joe is beaten within an inch of his life and only survives because his police captain father (Brendan Gleeson) just happens to show up in the alley where they’re about to kill Joe. Joe wakes up a few days later in a prison hospital and spends three years in jail for armed robbery. Once out, the new story begins. Joe joins the Italian mob in order to exact revenge on Albert for killing Emma (Albert wasn’t about to forgive the cheating). His new boss, Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone) sends him to Tampa to take over his rum-running business there while simultaneously muscling Albert out of Tampa. On the surface, this seems like the logical road for a broken-hearted lover to take, but avenging Emma is soon forgotten when Joe meets Graciella Corrales (Zoe Saldana) and falls in love with her. At that point, Joe is just acting like a standard mob guy and we never actually see Albert until the end of the film. I won’t spoil the why, but it’s pretty dumb. And Joe verbalizes how dumb it is. Then bullets start to fly and bodies pile up as the movie climaxes, then we get three endings because Ben couldn’t decide how to actually end the film.
Her name was Elizabeth. No, Angela. No, something starting with M.
Like I said, there are parts of this movie that are good. The climax scene is very well done and Batman kicks some ass in that scene. There are good moments between characters, especially a diner scene between Joe and Loretta Figgis (Elle Fanning), the daughter of the Tampa police captain (Chris Cooper). Unfortunately, Loretta is one of the side plots that becomes the main plot for a time. At this point in the film, Joe has rid Tampa of Albert, and Joe is focused on getting a casino built. Loretta is preaching about the evils of gambling and drinking, and Joe doesn’t want to kill her. Later, the Ku Klux Klan show up because black people also drink rum and the movie becomes about racial history. It’s like if Batman was Forrest Gump, but made and sold hooch for the Italian mob.
And one Elle Fanning.
If the movie had stuck with a single plot like the love story (this could have spanned the entire film with the rum wars between the mobs woven in), it would have been a much tighter film. Then, Emma’s betrayal might have meant something to the audience rather than just being a forgotten plot device. They also could have spent more time developing the rivalry between Albert and Maso rather than trying to convince us of the animosity through occasional ethnic slurs. Even Loretta could have been a more important character (perhaps being played by both sides) rather than being an amusing anecdote in Joe’s life. The point I’m trying to make is that sometimes less is more. Live by Night is an average, but uneven movie that suffers from Ben Affleck trying prove that Batman is better than Superman. Or something like that.
Rating: Ask for half your money back. If Joe did any living by night, we never saw it.