Dennis Lehane’s crime noir develops in a way that translates easily on screen, with a filmography that includes Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone, Shutter Island, and the underwhelming The Drop. In Live by Night, Lehane teams with another Boston guy, Ben Affleck, to deliver a film that is all noir and muddled ethics, but fails to deliver the captivating panache of the other films.
Joe Coughlin (Affleck) is a World War I vet, son of a Boston police captain, and a grade A screw-up. He takes up small-time holdups, until running on the wrong side of big time gangster, Albert White (Robert Glenister), because Coughlin is secretly dating White’s girlfriend (Sienna Miller). Only Coughlin’s father’s intervention keeps White from killing him; taking a job for Italian mobster (Remo Girone) sends Coughlin south to Florida where he takes over the rum-running business.
The next hour and a half takes us through how Coughlin sets up the business, falls for a Cuban businesswoman (Zoe Saldana), fights the KKK, ticks off Chris Cooper’s local sheriff, and saunters around acting like a gangster while swearing he’s not really a bad guy. Seriously, can you say you’re not a bad guy, act like a bad guy, and really not be a bad guy? Oh, the moral dilemmas.
While I thought that Affleck’s team-up with Lehane as director of his little brother in Gone Baby Gone was well-played, and his writing/starring/directorial stint in another crime noir flick, The Town, was amazing, Live by Night was more rote progression, nearly documentary-like. Is it the screenplay he wrote, in Lehane’s script, or in the way Affleck moves the actors around?
Despite the poor reviews, I really wanted to like the film, but it just didn’t have the emotional power of “I’ll see you again, on this side or the next” (The Town) or the multi-faceted morality of Gone Baby Gone. Audiences who disagree can check out more from Affleck and others, in a look at the messy morality of “The Men of Live By Night,” a look at Lehane, the women of the film (“Angels with Dirty Faces”), the opening car chase of the film’s robbery, or words from director Affleck.