Released in January of 2016, Live By Night is an American gangster film written, directed by and starring Ben Affleck, based on a novel published in 2012. It tells the story of Joe Coughlin as he becomes a kingpin of the 1920s gangster era in Florida.
In one sentence, the movie is underwhelming. It contains little to no emotional surprises, with most of the plot twists feeling empty and arbitrary. I chose to watch this movie because Affleck has earned a reputation of delivering great movies (and stories) as writer, director, and actor, so how did Live By Night end up being so disappointing?
There are multiple answers to that question, but this review will focus on only one: the story in Live By Night simply tried to do too much. The entire movie will be spoiled, because we’ll be examining the story from top to bottom.
Stretching a Story Thin
The biggest problem with the movie is the lack of payoff in the final third of the film. The story is about Joe diving deeper into the criminal underworld, becoming head honcho of the mafia’s operations in Florida, but the movie tries to weave together multiple plot lines simultaneously, and without tying them all up neatly together at the end, the entire thing is like a quilt riddled with patchwork and loose threads.
The very first subplot we get is Joe’s moral integrity. Right in the beginning he narrates to us that being in World War I has shaped his view of life, implying that he anti-war primarily because of how pointlessly violent it is. Though he isn’t above becoming a bank robber to make a living, this is his initial reason for refusing to join the gangs, because he has had enough of killing and taking orders.
But he ends up joining the mafia anyway, because he wants to get revenge on a rival gangleader. Suddenly, all of his decisions in the movie is not about what’s right and wrong, but how badly he can mess up the Irish gang-leader’s plans. So the paradox Joe being a moral and independent mafia goon is the first subplot to be downplayed.
Next are two intimate relationships Joe had that are initially quite engaging but end up being squandered. This is his relationship with his father (who is a police chief) and his first lover (Emma). The relationships had potential, because Joe’s a robber and his dad’s a man of the law, which was neat in of itself. The film also does a great job convincing us that Joe and Emma are truly in love, the problem being that Emma is the Irish gang-leader’s woman (that, and Emma ends up betraying Joe). Despite great performances by the actors and good set-up, the story never cashes in on these two subplots. Joe’s dad ends up dying off screen, having done nothing but bail Joe out of a longer prison sentence, and after the grand betrayal we see nothing of Emma until the end, where apparently her being alive is supposed to be a plot twist but fails because we only hear about her “death” second hand. Even during the meeting at the end, Emma offers no good reason for betraying Joe, and laughs away his question of “Did you ever love me?”
The reason the story failed to capitalize on these two relationships was because it needed to focus on Joe’s rise within the mafia. To advance the main plot, these two interesting relationships had to be sacrificed, which is a shame, and another example of the story trying to do too much.
Following the Script Too Closely
Upon reflect it seems that the movie’s downfall may have been caused by trying to be faithful to the source material, which is strange since many adaptations are often criticized for being unfaithful. However, in the case of Live By Night the movie is prevented from branching off into interesting detours because it has decided to follow the less interesting main path.
While in Florida Joe develops a relationship with Graciela, sister of the local Cuban drug lord. The character does absolutely nothing for the plot besides being the “I’m worried about the protagonist” thing, but it’s obvious she’s there because she’s in the book. Perhaps the novel had her playing a more prominent role, maybe to serve as a sign that Joe has moved on from Emma, but in the film she is absent from just about every critical scene, and as a result we forget about her. That is why when she dies in the end it’s embarrassingly anti-climatic. She played no significant role so she was never really that important, and her death ended up feeling random. Perhaps if she was giving a more active role she may have been more noteworthy, but again the story was too busy with other things. It may have even been better to just cut this character out completely and save the space.
Instead of developing Graciela the film instead was developing Pruitt (A KKK member) and Loretta, daughter of the local police chief. Again, both Pruitt and Loretta are very interesting characters, and actually the film does a great job with Pruitt’s subplot, but I felt the end of Loretta’s story to be the most disappointing.
Loretta is introduced as a southern sweetheart with aspirations to make it big in Hollywood, but tragically she ends up being entrapped by the world of drugs and sex, and ends up becoming a whore. Joe saves her and gets her back home, using that as leverage against the police chief, and after humbling herself Loretta becomes the local spokesperson for God, her life serving as an example of sin and redemption.
Thus, she presents an interesting obstacle to Joe’s plans (which involves building a casino). Unlike rival gangsters and KKK members, Joe can’t outright bribe, threaten, or kill Loretta, and this works nicely with the very first subplot of Joe struggling between upholding his integrity and being a mafia boss. BUT the film had to stick to the novel (with the Italian gang-leader being Joe’s final antagonist), and it wanted the generic showdown in the form of a shootout at the mafia leader’s mansion. Instead of seeing a real conflict with Loretta, Joe decides in a single line that he’s not killing the girl and Loretta ends up committing suicide, bring her interesting character to a disappointing and stupid end. In trying to wrap up the story between Joe and the mafia leader, it had to sacrifice yet another subplot that had more potential.
It would’ve been way more interesting if Loretta was the final ordeal Joe had to go through. All this time he’s been doing questionable things and killing a whole lot of people, but now here’s someone his conscience tells him he can’t kill. What if Loretta was more ambitious and wanted to end the mob’s activities completely? What if Loretta became more like a messiah, garnering more power than the police and the gangs? If the story was more focused and decisive in how it wanted to portray Joe’s struggle, this would’ve been a great path to explore, but instead the story had other generic fish to fry.
Because the film tried to tell so many stories, it spread itself too thin for any of the subplots to have emotional substance. We don’t really care when any of the characters die, except maybe Pruitt and Loretta, but the tragedy of the latter is that she would’ve done more for the plot if she remained alive.
Live By Night is a good case study in how trying to tell too much can work against the overall plot. Since it threw in so many things together, Joe was tested in various little trials but in none of any significant importance. By the end of the movie, Joe is still the same guy he was at the beginning, except he had a son now, so who cares? This was a case of quantity over quality, and if the film had chosen to focus on a particular aspect, we might’ve actually seen Joe change.
As is, this movie is average, and not worth watching in theatres. But it has been enlightening thinking about how it failed to tell a good story.
This has been a gamobo review. Thanks for reading.