Film Review: Live by Night

After crossing a Boston gangster, a petty crook seeks revenge among Florida bootleggers. Polished, large-scale crime drama improves on the Dennis Lehane novel.
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Adapting one of Dennis Lehane's lesser novels, director, star and screenwriter Ben Affleck ends up with an old-fashioned, unexpectedly satisfying crime drama that reworks gangster clichés to mostly good effect. With an outstanding supporting cast and extravagant production design by Jess Gonchor, Live by Night could find an appreciative audience worn out by sci-fi and superheroes.

Affleck collaborated on the screenplay for Lehane's Gone Baby Gone, but goes solo on this one. Unfolding over several years in Massachusetts and Florida, Live by Night is two movies for the price of one. The harder-edged Boston scenes find World War I vet Joe Coughlin toying with petty crime while carrying on with Emma Gould (Sienna Miller), mistress of vicious mobster Albert White (Robert Glenister).

Joe pretends he is a crook, not a gangster, but when he is betrayed and left for dead he turns to White's rival Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone) for revenge. Maso sets him up in Ybor City, Florida, a hub for bootleggers.

With his enforcer Dion Bartolo (Chris Messina), Joe eliminates Ybor City's organized crime leaders, establishing his own gang in nightclubs, warehouses and trucking companies. In the process he falls for Graciela Suarez (Zoe Saldana), whose family controls molasses shipments from Cuba.

Their affair brings threats from the Ku Klux Klan in the form of unhinged, bomb-throwing redneck R.D. Pruitt (Matthew Maher), brother-in-law of police chief Figgis (Chris Cooper). Maneuvering around Pruitt forces Joe to endanger Figgis' young daughter Loretta (Elle Fanning).

That's an unusually strong cast even before mentioning Brendan Gleeson, typically spectacular as Joe's police officer dad. Girone deserves special credit as an icy, menacing don, as does Maher as a contemptible racist. In fact, the only weak link in the cast may be Affleck himself, a big-screen presence in a role that calls for a quiet, sneaky performer.

What's also surprising is how bigthe production seems. Extras teem through sleazy nightclubs, posh society balls, cigar sweatshops, tent meetings. At one point, Joe oversees the construction of a massive Sarasota casino. The movie's action highlight is a hard-hitting car chase that extends through several blocks in Boston.

The plot gives strong parts to three distinctive women. Emma Gould may be a card-carrying femme fatale, but Miller gives her a convincing backstory. Saldana is both glamorous and troubled as a woman caught between two cultures. And against odds, Fanning brings clever, skeptical thinking to her part as a religious zealot.

The title Live by Night evokes Depression-era classics like They Drive by Night and 1949's doomed-lovers-on-the-run pic They Live by Night. Anyone familiar with the gangster genre will find few surprises in the plotting here. But they will find few missteps either.

As a director, Affleck has found a way to mold the Warner Bros. studio style to his own will. What felt heavy and oppressive in Batman v Superman—the massive sets, prodigal casting, class-warfare plotting—makes a lot more sense in a downbeat (and referential) film noir. Live by Night may not be new, but it proves that some old tricks still work.

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