Movie Review : Live by Night (2017)
Dennis Lehane has been Hollywood's favorite novelist in the twenty-first century. Five of his books have been turned into movies since 2003: Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone, Shutter Island, The Drop and the adaptation I'm reviewing today Live By Night, which came out in theaters six weeks ago. I've enjoyed the novel when it originally came out in 2012, but it was a mammoth four hundred pager that could've easily spawned a trilogy with its content. So, how did Ben Affleck manage to fit the rise of Joe Coughlin inside barely two hours? Not very well, mind you. Live By Night is not great. Not nearly as good as the novel is. Whether you're looking to see a terrific novel come to life or you're looking for a gateway into Dennis Lehane's work, this movie doesn't quite cut it. Sorry.
If you want to know why, keep reading.
The story of Live By Night is one you've heard somewhere before: Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck) is a World War I veratan (a detail added in the movie, I believe) making a living as a small-time criminal in Boston. When he falls in love with the trophy girlfriend of powerful mobster Albert White (Robert Glenister), Joe plans one last job before eloping to California with his woman (Sienna Miller) but the job goes awry, he's imprisoned and becomes obsessed with taking revenge on White who seemingly murdered the woman they both loved. Fast forward a couple years, Joe gets out of prison and swear allegiance to rival mobster Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone) in order to build himself back up and exert his revenge on Albert White. Joe is sent to Ybor City, Florida where White has been chased and has for mission to take over the rum market. Only his path to vengeance will be anything but straightforward.
Live By Night is, fundamentally, a story about self-determination. The cornerstone of the American Dream if you will. Since coming back from World War I, Joe Coughlin has to constantly choose who he wants to be: either a lawful citizen or an "outlaw", either a freelance "outlaw" or an organized crime figure, either a good Christian or a successful businessman, either a successful businessman or a good husband, etc. It's about having the freedom of choosing who you want to be and having the courage to stand up for these choices. It's also a very safe, revisionist and romanticized portrait of bootlegging.
The idea of turning bootleggers into stylish businessmen who "did what they had to do" to get booze to the American people is seducing because booze is legal and universally enjoyed nowadays, but it doesn't change the fact that it's looking at history through rose-colored glasses. People who survive and prosper in Live By Night are smart and righteous and it's never even hinted at once that they could be brutal motherfuckers. Scarface and Goodfellas have become gangster movie classics because they drew boundaries between their narrative and the audiences, giving their protagonists a special and "dangerous" aura. Tony Montana sure as shit isn't like anybody else. Live By Night gives your the wrongful impression than any moron who feels righteous about his chances of succeeding in America could've become a notorious criminal in the 1920s.
So, why does the movie fail where the novel succeeded? Aside from Ben Affleck ridiculously casting himself as a up-and-coming ambitious twenty-something and coming off as a middle-aged man roleplaying gangster, the movie suffers from its own ambition of cramming everything the novel has to say within two hours. Another important theme of Live By Night is the gap between ideas and existence, which kind of tied the room together like Jeff Lebowski's iconic carpet. Everybody, including readers, have had plans for their lives that got derailed for better or worse. What you plan for yourself and what happens when you exert these plans upon the world (and therefore upon other people who have plans for themselves) are two different things and the way Joe Coughlin SLOOOWLY delves away from criminality in the novel is both adorable and relatable. In the movie, he has this Michael Corleone moment where he talks about going legit and then it just sort of happens.
Live By Night is not incompetent or anything, it's just sort of boring. I don't like to use this qualifier when I discuss movies, but I think it's warranted now: the fifth movie adaptation of a Dennis Lehane is a series of unoriginal gangster tropes that romanticize bootlegging like, you know, dozens of other movies have done before. The illusory nature of the American Dream and the battle between the Church and the business world for the soul of the country that made the novel riveting transpire very little in this adaptation. I often say that a movie written and directed by one person is a hint of quality, but it's not the case here. Live By Night is more or less Ben Affleck's personal playground. He wrote, directed AND produced the movie and somehow, somewhere, a critical piece of feedback got lost: the movie ended up looking like a bunch of middle-aged guys roleplaying Dick Tracy and taking themselves WAY too seriously.