Live By Night is a disjointed gangster film that is a lot of different movies all mashed together with no main plot. Elle Fanning is superb, but unfortunately her character is only in the movie for about 15 minutes. Ben Affleck seems to think that just having a lot of Tommy-gun shootouts, car crashes and goons in fancy suits makes a good gangster film. However, the audience also has to know enough about a character to care who gets killed.
It feels like Live by Night is a series of short movies that don’t really connect to each other. In this 2 hour film, there are at least 5 different plots. As a result, the movie does not spend enough time on any of them. As soon as the audience starts to get interested in one subject, Live By Night suddenly switches gears and goes in a different direction. Just for fun, let’s list the plots in order of appearance.
- Ben Affleck is Boston native Joe Coughlin, the son of the Assistant Police Commissioner. Joe goes off the fight in World War I and comes home violent and disillusioned. He therefore turns to crime. The jaded WWI vet idea has been done much better in other venues, most recently in the HBO series Boardwalk Empire.
- Joe Coughlin becomes a Boston gangster. The Irish and Italian mobs are at war, and Joe is being recruited by both sides. At the same time, he is having an affair with the Irish mobster’s girlfriend Sienna (played by Emma Gould). This is compete plagiarism of the plot of Miller’s Crossing.
- Just when you get set to watch the rest of the Miller’s Crossing remake, Live By Night suddenly changes venues to Florida. It becomes a love story with Joe seducing the beautiful sister of the Cuban crime boss who controls the rum business. Zoe Saldana is Graciela, who says she has no interest in Joe, then immediately goes to bed with him. Their love story is completely rushed and the two of them seem to have no on-screen chemistry.
- Then, out of nowhere, the KKK shows up and Joe becomes a freedom fighter. He is no longer a murdering gangster, but actually a guy who is really just providing good jobs for African and Cuban Americans. Apparently this is not a gangster film but actually a story about civil rights in the 1930s. Joe makes a number of pious speeches about giving hard working people a break. However, these lectures all fall flat when we know that he is a ruthless killer who has never felt a second of remorse for anyone he murdered.
- The final and most interesting foe which Joe has to face is the young Evangelical preacher Loretta Figgis (Elle Fanning) . She is a “fallen woman” who has come back to Florida to fight the evils of Liquor, Drugs and Gambling. Of course, these are all the industries that make money for Joe Coughlin. He finds that she is much tougher than anyone he has fought before. If he simply kills Loretta it will only make her a martyr and the backlash will destroy his empire. Joe also likes and admires Loretta very much. Despite her past, there is a pure an innocent beauty about her. She is probably the only person Joe has ever met who is completely honest and who wants nothing for herself. She genuinely believes in her cause.
Live By Night should have skipped the other plot lines and focused entirely on the contest between the gangster and the beautiful evangelical preacher. There is one wonderful scene in the movie where Joe Coughlin and Loretta meet by chance in a cafe, and Loretta honestly shares her deepest thoughts with Joe. He realizes that Loretta is something he has never known existed before. A genuinely good person.
However, we see Loretta for only a fraction of the film. The rest of Live by Night is filled up with car chases and exceedingly long gun battles. There is so much machine gun fire between guys wearing fancy suits that it quickly becomes impossible to tell who is who. They just become anonymous gangsters that we don’t care about.
We know that Ben Affleck can make a great movie. Unfortunately Live by Night is not one of them.