It is often tempting to look at the possible influences that a particularly derivative-feeling movie has drawn on, to see the superior versions of a standard or rote narrative. Live by Night is no exception; to this reviewer the film almost reads as a clumsy marriage between Michael Mann’s Public Enemies, in overall style and milieu, and Miami Vice, if Colin Farrell’s character was on the other side of the law. Yes, the film is adapted from the novel of the same name written by Dennis Lehane, but there is an undeniable urge to compare this limp, lifeless work to its better examples.
There are, of course, many other and better examples. Live by Night is an extraordinarily by-the-book gangster film set in during Prohibition, detailing the rise to power of Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck, who also directed and wrote the adapted screenplay) in first Boston and then Tampa. Herein lies the first fatal mistake of the film: Affleck structures the first third of the film that takes place in Boston as a kind of prologue, briefly introducing Joe lying in a hospital bed before moving back seemingly only a few months back in time. The Boston section as a whole is thus rendered moot, and the film feels too rushed to fully luxuriate in the urban grime that it attempts to evoke, especially in a mildly thrilling Model T chase.
After Live by Night moves to the sunnier climes of Tampa, it commits its gravest, most perplexing error: it becomes extraordinarily sentimental, not in the sense that it becomes convincingly moving or powerful, but in the sense that it loses itself completely to the semblance of emotion. Affleck seems to think that inserting in a preponderance of musical strings or grand speeches can substitute for the lack of any sort of compelling feelings that ought to arise in this standard tale. At the same time, there is a sense that Affleck should have stuck even closer to the standard tale, as Joe rises to power so fast in Tampa and holds it for so long that the film quickly stalls, throwing a variety of opponents ranging from his old mob boss in Boston that betrayed him to the Ku Klux Klan to even a religious movement led by Loretta Figgis (Elle Fanning) in an attempt to wring some drama out of this bloated film.
Affleck remains oddly resolute in his confidence that his sporadic efforts will result in a worthwhile film, and it is no small feat that his all-American gangster performance that comes off as largely bland somehow comes off better than his monotone, serious voiceover that dominates the entire film. Still, Live by Night is not without its merits. The standard tale, after all, is standard for a reason, and the bright spots in the narrative and in the production (particularly Robert Richardson’s gliding and grimy cinematography) do shine. But it is the perfunctory nature of Live by Night that lasts longest, the bland shock of its violence (often played out in montages) that rings the loudest. It is a largely joyless and humorless film, and it is in the final, protracted shootout, where the film finally embraces its true calling, that it becomes truly interesting.