Sleeps with the Fishes

Live by Night follows the life of Boston gangster Joe Coughlin in the Roaring 20s.
Con – Bait and switch
One of my biggest gripes is the bait and switch. The trailer promises X, but the movie delivers Y. And so it is with Live By Night. It promised a cool, Boston-based gangster movie and delivered a lukewarm character study. It’s not even that it’s bad, so much as it’s little of what the audience expects and wants, and a lot of what it doesn’t. The movie follows Ben Affleck’s character, Joe Coughlin, as he moves from petty criminal to high-profile gangster, despite the disapproving glare of his cop father, played by a thoroughly enjoyable Brendan Gleeson. The backdrop of all of this is a gangster movie set in the “demon rum” running days, but it’s just that, a backdrop.
Con – A (good) bad guy
One of the biggest pitfalls of this film is that both the director (Ben Affleck) and the star (Ben Affleck) are intent on making a quasi-gangster movie where the main character (Ben Affleck) is a really good guy who does a few bad things. This singular vision ruins the movie. The movie goes to great pains to get us to not only like Joe Coughlin (which can be a good way to manipulate an audience) but to also cheer and respect him.
The avenue to do this seems so contrived it borders on ridiculous at times. Coughlin calls himself an outlaw at various points and blatantly tells us he doesn’t want to join a gang. Upon moving to racially segregated northern Florida, he immediately begins a relationship with molasses queen Graciela (the charming Zoe Saldana) as naturally as if it were 2017. In the south, his main violence and “gangster actions” target the KKK, who conveniently form the only opposition to this newcomer’s blossoming liquor empire.
Coughlin is full of remorse and angst, caring and compromise. Even his mandatory comeuppance is maxed out to play up the character. The problem is, he’s not a good guy. He robs banks, runs illegal rum, extorts cops, and shoots people in cold blood. You can pull my heart strings to subtlety manipulate me, but don’t yank them with a team of Clydesdales and expect me not to notice.
Pro – Beautiful
The film is really a visual joy. Set in the early 1920s to early 1930s, the costuming, cars, and backgrounds are great. One scene, which features a 1920s socialite party complete with jazz, booze, flappers, and tuxedos, is an awesome glance at the charm of this romanticized period. The scenes set in Florida are equally cool, and the exposure to the ethnic culture and look of the time and place was really enjoyable.
Live By Night disappoints as it promises that which it doesn’t deliver and tries too hard to paint the main character as a hero he’s not.