When a small-time thief joins forces with bootleggers during Prohibition, will he be able to survive when he finds he’s gotten in over his head?
During The Prohibition Era, Joe (Affleck) is trying to survive as a petty crook in his home town of Boston. A veteran of World War I, he finds this an easier way to make a living than working for either the Italian or Irish mob as they battle each other in their respective bootlegging endeavors. But Joe makes the fatal mistake of falling in love with Emma (Sienna Miller), the girlfriend of Albert White (Robert Glenister), the Irish mob boss; when White discovers Emma has been cheating on him, he gives Joe a severe beating, after which he brags that he’s going to kill Emma.
Although Joe pulls through, he is now a changed man and wants to avenge Emma’s death. To do this, he requests a job from Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone), the Italian mob boss, as a way to get back at White. Pescatore informs Joe that White is now making inroads in Tampa by importing Cuban rum and selling it throughout Florida; as a result, Joe is dispatched to Tampa in order to divert the business from White to Pescatore. Once this has been accomplished, he becomes aware of an opportunity where he and Pescatore can open a casino where they can both become wealthy. Pescatore partners with Joe in this venture, but it turns out to be harder than it seems when Joe must battle the local KKK who insist on owning the casino outright.
After defeating the Klan, Joe thinks he’s home free, but he soon learns of another obstacle in his way that may be more difficult to beat: Loretta (Elle Fanning) is the daughter of the somewhat crooked local Police Chief Figgis (Chris Cooper). Overcoming a troubled past, she becomes a popular evangelist who preaches against all types of sin and vices – including gambling. With a large and growing enthusiastic following, Loretta denounces the new casino that Joe is trying to build and encourages the people of Tampa to speak out against it to prevent its opening. When she succeeds, Pescatore is furious at Joe, who by now has taken up with Graciella (Zoe Saldana), the sister of the Cuban rum importer. With Joe’s life now endangered, can he endure a confrontation with Pescatore’s men?
In 2007, Ben Affleck directed the acclaimed film “Gone Baby Gone”, which was based on a Dennis Lehane novel. Nearly a decade later and in desperate need of a hit since “Argo” in 2012, Affleck goes back to the well to adapt another Lehane novel. This time, however, the results are considerably less stellar. The main problem with “Live By Night” is the fact that story is rather murky – note that the screenplay is not called out specifically because the problem could be the source material itself (perhaps readers of the novel on which it is based can share some insight here).
Although the movie is only about two hours in length, it feels longer in part because the forward momentum of the story is interrupted; this stop-and-start quality is due to taking so many detours (a luxury that novels have over films). The other problem here is that it has what might be referred to as a “false ending”; just when you think the story has reached its resolution, it goes on considerably longer – as a result, with the audience psychologically believing that the motion picture has concluded, it’s actual ending feels interminable.
Another area where novels differ from movies is with the number of characters involved. In “Live By Night”, there are too many characters introduced whom you are given to understand are central to the plot, but in fact turn out to be rather secondary (perhaps less than that). They are given too much weight – either in implied importance or screen time – and the viewer winds up feeling a bit misdirected. Was this supposed to be Affleck’s attempt at a sprawling epic? Instead of coming off like “The Godfather”, it feels more like a pale imitation of “Boardwalk Empire”.