Critics haven’t been very complimentary of Live By Night, but I seem to have enjoyed it quite a bit more than most of them. Live By Night is based on a book by Dennis Lehane, the same novelist who has written the original works of Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone, and Shutter Island. Unlike many contemporary novelists, Lehane’s works rarely deal solely with pure good versus pure evil. There are often a lot of grey areas involved. Mystic River explored long-term consequences of traumatic events buried deep in our pasts. Gone Baby Gone asked if a wrong action taken for the right reason can be the right choice.
Live By Night in a similar manner to films like The Godfather puts us in the mindset and sympathy of the villains. Taking place in Prohibition-Era Tampa, we are given a romanticized view of the gangster lifestyle. We learn early that these are characters who know full well they will likely die young and that any moment could be their last.
We see the main character, Joe Coughlin, played brilliantly by Affleck, rise high up in the ranks of the Pescatore Crime Family as he seeks revenge for the murder of his years ago lover, killed by the head of Albert White, the head of the rival crime family.
But once again, this is a slow-burn. The fact that Coughlin is seeking this revenge is looked away from for much of the film as he focuses on building his reputation and building his business.
The setting and visual style of the film set a perfect tone and really transport the viewer to the era of Prohibition where the biggest business is rum-funning and running speakeasies. It’s an era where the knowledge that Prohibition will soon end is always in the forefront of the minds of these businessmen and the next means of making money needs to be discovered and planned for.
As an avid reader, it’s also difficult for me not to compare the film to the novel. Doing this had some pros and cons. There were some scenes in the film that were almost exactly how I’d pictured them when reading the novel. Coughlin’s first meeting with the police chief Figgus (played by Chris Cooper) played out exactly how my mind’s eye saw it as did one of the key opening scenes in which a police officer is killed in a fiery car wreck.
However, the film also omitted a significant sequence of the book and glossed over it in the broadest of strokes. It was a portion from early in the novel dealing with Joe’s prison time. It would have added at least thirty to forty-five minutes to the film, but it would have been well worth it and would have made the film better.
Overall, this won’t go down as a career-defining film for anyone involved, nor a genre-defining film. Far from it. It’s also far from Affleck’s best acting or directorial work. But it was a solid piece of film-making, better than a lot of what is available right now. While it may not be receiving great reviews right now, I think this has potential to become an underground favorite somewhere in the future.