“Live By Night”


            Ben Affleck's screenplay of Dennis Lehane's novel attempts a complex character with changing motivations as his life progresses.

            We begin in the trenches of World War One, where Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck), police lieutenant's son, experienced the brutality of combat, understood the senselessness of death by patriotism, and told himself that if he ever got through this he wouldn't take orders from anyone again.  And so he comes home as a man inured to violence, and determined to take whatever he wants, when he wants.  This leads him into the life of an armed robber, but not only banks:  the illegal poker games sponsored by the Mob.  That gets him in trouble with the big boys.  Worse, he falls for the Irish Mob Boss' girlfriend, Emma (Sienna Miller), which ends badly for both of them.  He winds up beaten up and in prison, she's missing and presumed dead. 

            Joe emerges from prison determined to get his revenge by living large, and agrees to work for the Italian Mob Boss, rum-running in Florida during Prohibition.  It's a profitable business.  With his old buddy Dion (Chris Messina), Joe builds an underworld Empire, but again finds complication in his romancing.  This time, he's fallen in love with a Cuban supplier's sister, Graciela (Zoe Saldana), who understands the business, but yearns for a much more traditional life.  Joe not only falls for her, but begins to incorporate her dreams:  he wants to get married, settle down, raise a family.  And she wants to open a halfway house for abandoned women and their children.  Is all that compatible with the gangster lifestyle?  No.  Something has to give.

            In Ben Affleck's fantasy world (he's the screenplay writer, Director, and star), he gets to have it all:  not only the pretty girl, but manuevering to the top of the underworld in Tampa, despite the long tentacles of his old Boston Mob connections.  He even gets to overcome the Ku Klux Klan, who opposes him not because of his rum-running but because of his association with “undesirables.”  Ironically, it's his uneasy truce with a pragmatic police chief that damages him.  His daughter, Loretta (Elle Fanning), preaches against Joe's dream of a casino, which thwarts his ambition of going legit after Prohibition is repealed.

            The Joe Coughlin character does indeed evolve.  He begins as someone who simply takes what he wants, with no real commitment to anybody other than his buddy Dion, who always has his back.  He thinks he's in love with Emma, but she proves to him that from her standpoint, it was only about the good times.  Joe will not only sit in the police chief's front yard sipping a beer with him, he'll attend a tent revival where Loretta is the featured speaker, and then tell her afterwards it was “a good show.”  He gets ahead in the rough underworld by being ruthless and well-prepared, but seems to lose all his smarts at once by thinking he can just walk away from that life unscathed.  Or is it a kind of karma, for the man with no religion, to experience the violence he perpetrated coming back around to wound him?  Of course we viewers are aware that gangster movies generally aren't working toward “happily ever after,” anyway.  But this film struggles with having a consistent point of view, other than what the narcisstic main character decides he wants at the time.  That's might be enough to hold our interest for a while (particularly with some lavish sets, costuming, and cinematography), but don't expect us to be fascinated, charmed, or won over.


Questions for Discussion:

1)                  Making alcohol illegal, during Prohibition, created a profitable business for gangsters.  What other unlawful activities create profitable businesses for the underworld?

2)                  Would it help to make everything legal, and try to regulate the “sin industries”?

3)                  When have you had a romance that didn't bring out the best in you?  When have you had a romance that actually helped develop you into a better person?

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association