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The City Journals

Dan's Review: Affleck's "Live by Night" has a gang of problems

Jan 14, 2017 11:08PM ● By Dan Metcalf

Zoe Saldana and Ben Affleck in Live by Night - © 2016 Warner Bros.

Live by Night (Warner Bros.)

Rated R for strong violence, language throughout, and some sexuality/nudity.

Starring Ben Affleck, Elle Fanning, Brendan Gleeson, Chris Messina, Sienna Miller, Zoe Saldana, Chris Cooper, Robert Glenister, Titus Welliver, Remo Girone, Max Casella, Miguel, Gianfranco Terrin, Anthony Michael, Chris Sullivan, Derek Mears, J.D. Evermore, Clark Gregg.

Written by Ben Affleck based on the novel by Dennis Lehane.

Directed by Ben Affleck.



Ben Affleck is one of those filmmakers with whom most audiences have a love/hate relationship. We love movies he directs/writes (Good Will Hunting, Gone, Baby Gone, The Town and Argo), but he doesn’t get much love as an actor. Occasionally, he stars in films he also directs, with varying results in acclaim and box office. Following the success of Argo (2012’s Oscar winner for best picture), Affleck is back with another passion project in Live by Night, the story of a gangster trying to make it big during Prohibition.

Affleck plays Joe Coughlin, the son of Irish immigrant and Boston Police Captain Tom Coughlin (Brendan Gleeson). After witnessing the horrors of World War I, Joe, returns to Boston, vowing never to take orders again, and beginning a life as an outlaw. His path eventually crosses with gangster boss Albert White (Robert Glenister), who hires him as one of his enforcers. Joe also falls in love with Emma (Sienna Miller), White’s mistress. After their affair is discovered, Joe is beaten and captured by police, while Emma is presumed dead. After spending a few years in prison, Joe is summoned by White’s rival gang boss Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone), who gives his a job  to take over the rum operation in Tampa, Florida, where White is trying to corner the market. Joe jumps at the chance, taking his longtime friend Bartolo (Chris Messina) along as his second in command. When he gets there, Joe falls in love with Graciela (Zoe Saldana) and helps build the rum operation into a raging success. He is forced to deal with local police chief Irving Figgis (Chris Cooper), whose daughter Loretta (Elle Fanning) falls into drugs and prostitution while traveling to California where she hoped to become a star. Things get complicated when Loretta reforms her ways and leads a crusade against Joe’s vice operations, which also brings pressure from his gang boss in Boston. Complicating things even more is Joe’s mixed race relationship with Graciela bringing the wrath of the local Ku Klux Klan. The conflict comes to a head when Pescatore visits Joe in Tampa to assert his dominion, and a battle ensues.

Live by Night is a mess of a movie, despite some impressive visuals set in the 1920s and 30s. The biggest mess is the story, meandering through several moral premises, convenient plot devices and improbable outcomes. Affleck’s character is tough to buy as a sympathetic protagonist, pretending to be above the live of a gangster, while engaging in all sorts of murder and mayhem. Affleck’s Joe also presumes to be entitled to some sort of reward for his life of crime without paying any kind of social price.

In the end, Live by Night is nothing more than a bunch of brooding actors dressing up in big suits and fedoras, spouting out tough-guy clichés with thick accents while spraying each other with gunfire. Listen, if you want to play dress up and pretend to be 1930s gangsters, go ahead. Just don’t expect everyone to buy a ticket to see it.

You can do better than this, Ben. Choose your next directorial project wisely.

Live by Night Trailer