129 min. | R
It’s true: the Mafia tangled with the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s. Their conflict intersects the storyline of Live By Night when gangster Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck) is dismayed to find a burning cross and hooded horsemen outside his Florida speakeasy. In real life, the mobsters had reasons to resent white Protestants and the Klansmen hated Catholics and immigrants almost as much as blacks, but the flashpoint was illegal booze trafficking. The mob ran rum into the U.S. while the Klan backed Prohibition.
Credit Affleck for directing with an eye toward preserving the sprawling contour of the Denis Lehane novel from which this screenplay was adapted. The story begins in Boston where Joe, the son of a police superintendent, returns after losing his respect for social order after fighting in the trenches of World War I. He becomes a small-time criminal and bank robber with the hots for the girlfriend of Irish mobster Albert White.
But things go wrong. An easy heist turns into a bloody debacle and worse, the cuckolded Irish mobster nearly kills him. Joe ends up in prison and upon release joins the Italian mob. White is now rum running in Florida and the Italians want to seize the business. Joe becomes their henchman.
A great gangster movie needs a memorable gangster at its center. Unfortunately, Affleck is mild-mannered but never mythic and despite his turn as a brooding Batman, gravitas escapes him. There are good performances from the supporting cast, namely Brendan Gleeson as Joe’s disappointed dad, and Chris Cooper as the bemused, moralistic sheriff willing to accommodate himself to a fallen world.
While there is some smart dialogue, the movie suffers from unexplained leaps: the police arrive in the back alley at the moment White would have killed Joe (who called them?); Joe finds blackmail material about the sheriff’s daughter in Los Angeles (how?). And annoyingly, Affleck relies on that old device of the narrator musing about events.
Joe’s heart yearns for love. And there are many colorfully-staged scenes, especially once the story travels to Tampa. Yet Live By Night will never be considered the new Godfather. Maybe it will prompt some to reach for the book.