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Ben Affleck Tries to ‘Live By Night’

Jan. 10, 2017
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It’s true: the Mafia tangled with the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s. Their conflict gradually intersects the storyline of Live By Night when gangster Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck) is dismayed to find a burning cross and hooded horsemen outside his Florida speakeasy. In real life, the mobsters had reasons to resent White Anglo-Saxon Protestants and the Klansmen hated Catholics and immigrants almost as much as blacks, but the flashpoint was illegal trafficking in booze. The Mob ran rum into the U.S. while the Klan backed Prohibition.

Credit Affleck for directing Live By Night with an eye toward preserving the sprawling contour of the Dennis Lehane novel from which his screenplay was adapted. The story begins in Boston where Joe, the son of a police superintendent, returns after losing his respect for social order after fighting in the trenches of World War I. He becomes a small-time criminal, a stick-up artist and bank robber with the hots for the girlfriend of prominent Irish mobster Albert White. But things go wrong. An easy heist turns into a bloody debacle and worse still, the cuckolded Irish mobster nearly kills him. Joe ends up in prison and upon release joins the Italian mob to avenge himself. White has gone into rum running in Florida and the Italians want to seize the business. Joe becomes their henchman. 

Live By Night

Ben Affleck

Elle Fanning

Directed by Ben Affleck

Rated R

A great gangster movie needs a memorably played gangster at its center. Unfortunately, Affleck cast himself in the lead role. Affleck is mild-mannered but never mythic and despite his turn as a brooding Batman, gravitas still flees when he enters a room. There are good performances from some of the supporting cast, especially in ethnic roles both Irish and Italian, namely Brendan Gleeson as Joe’s disappointed dad, Robert Glenister as White, Remo Girone as the Italian kingpin and Chris Messina as Joe’s slaphappy sidekick. Chris Cooper is also good as the sheriff, a bemused moralist willing to accommodate himself to a fallen world.

While including some smart dialogue, the screenplay suffers from unexplained leaps: The police arrive in the back alley at the moment White would have killed Joe (who called them?); Joe finds blackmail material about the sheriff’s daughter in Los Angeles (how?). And annoyingly, Affleck relies on that old device of the narrator musing long afterward on event’s about to occur. He wants to sound like a hardboiled outlaw but can’t help but sound like himself.

Yes, there is sultry sex, and Joe’s heart yearns for love; there are many colorfully staged scenes, especially once the story travels to Tampa; and yet, Live By Night won’t be mistaken for the new Godfather. Maybe it will prompt some viewers to reach for the book. 

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