Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 8 min.
Our content ratings: Violence 7; Language 6; Sex/Nudity 5.
Our star rating (1-5): 4
Hear, my child, and accept my words,
that the years of your life may be many.
I have taught you the way of wisdom;
I have led you in the paths of uprightness.
When you walk, your step will not be hampered;
and if you run, you will not stumble. Keep hold of instruction; do not let go;
guard her, for she is your life.
Do not enter the path of the wicked,
and do not walk in the way of evildoers.
Do not be deceived; God is not mocked,
for you reap whatever you sow.
Ben Affleck’s new film based on a novel by Dennis Lehane, which he stars in as well as directs, will remind some viewers of those old classic gangster films starring James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, or Humphrey Bogart. The main character is an anti-hero, capable of great evil, and yet we root for him because he also has some redeeming qualities. Live by Night has some differences, one of them being that this is the only gangster film, as far as know, in which the Ku Klux Klan is one of the many opponents of the main character.
The brief prelude begins on the bloody battlefields of World War One. Narrating his story, Joe Coughlin (Affleck) sums up his war experience, “I signed up to fight in the war. I went away a soldier, I came home an outlaw.” This despite his being the son of Boston Police Deputy Superintendent Thomas Coughlin (Gleeson), a rarity in the film in that he is an honest cop. Apparently, the horrible things Joe had been forced by stupid officers to do in battle proved stronger than the influence of a just father. His father tries to reform him, saying at one point, “What you put out into the world will always come back to you, but never how you predict.”
However, disdaining authority, the young man is constantly immersed in trouble, working for a tough gangster whose brassy blond girlfriend Emma Gold (Sienna Miller) he finds irresistible. Of course, the boss discovers their affair and would have beat the transgressor to death had not his father, backed by a squad of policemen, shown up in the alley in time. Emma disappears, presumably killed, and Joe is sent away to prison.
When he is released, he realizes he must leave Boston, so he makes a deal with crime boss Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone) to go to Florida and take charge of the gang’s illegal rum business there. Prohibition is still in force, and Florida is on the rise. He takes with him Dion Bartolo (Chris Messina), who becomes his devoted henchman. In steamy Tampa, he connects with police chief Irving Figgis (Chris Cooper) and in the Cuban sector known as Ybor City, with rum runner Esteban Suarez (Miguel J. Pimentel). He makes deals—with the Chief to restrain his activities to certain areas and thus avoid turf warfare with other criminals; and with the Cuban to go into partnership, Esteban providing contacts for bringing in the rum, and Joe his Boston contact with Pescatore providing a wide market for the rum.
Joe falls in love with Esteban’s beautiful sister Graciela Suarez (Zoe Saldana), beginning a steamy relationship that eventually will produce a daughter. He also finds himself embroiled in a battle with an unexpected group, the local KKK, led by the arrogant R.D. Pruitt (Matthew Maher), the brother-in-law of local sheriff Irving Figgis. Pruitt hates Catholics as well as blacks, so Joe constitutes a double target—he is a “Papist,” and he has a girlfriend who is a black Cuban. There is a third reason—Joe is an Italian, and thus to WASPs Chief Figgis and his brother R.D. Pruit an eternal outsider.
Joe’s story weaves its way through history—the repeal of Prohibition, the growing interest in casinos, the rise of the KKK, and more. He ruthlessly defeats the KKK, but another battle he loses. He had begun to build a large casino because he sees that as a way to enrich himself and his boss legally, but a new opponent arises when Chief Figgis’s daughter Loretta (Elle Fanning), whom Joe had met before she had left town to pursue a career in Hollywood, returns, a broken drug addict. She had made it only as far as Las Vegas, after which her father had lost contact with her. In his bargaining with the Chief, Joe, able through his underworld contacts to locate her, had brought her back after the cop gave in to his demands. After her rehabilitation, Loretta became a popular evangelist, preaching so successfully against demon rum and gambling that Joe’s proposed casino is defeated by the city’s aroused citizenry.
The words of Joes’ father, “What you put out into the world will always come back to you, but never how you predict,” follow him, even when at a key moment following one of the bloodiest showdowns between rival gangs this side of the Godfather series, Joe decides to retire from crime and live a quiet life with Graciela and their daughter. Can such a man as Joe, capable of shooting a man across the table from him with no warning and no sense of regret, escape from his dark past? Ironically, “what come(s) back to you” is not a vengeful gang member, but just as devastating. In the last scene, we are left to ponder the nature of this man and the way such characters as he has been portrayed in crime films. Joe is a ruthless killer, and yet free of the racism of the time, and still possessing enough of a conscience to leave behind his lucrative criminal career.
Loretta had once said to him, “My father says there once was a good man in you.” When Joe replies, “We all find ourselves in lives we didn’t expect,” the evangelist in her cries out, “Repent. Repent. Repent. ” He does not do so, though as pointed out above, he tries to retire. Alas, when immersed in such evil, it is hard to walk away from the past. Joe as a father loving his daughter reminds me of The Road to Perdition in which Tom Hank’s Michael Sullivan is a ruthless hit man who tries to keep his crime life secret from his young sons. If only as a young man, Joe had been like the son to whom Qoheleth, author of the Book of Ecclesiastes, makes his appeal in the above passage.
I enjoyed seeing Chris Cooper again, an actor I’ve admired ever since he played a union organizer in John Sayles’ masterpiece Matewan in 1987. He is wonderful as the police chief who does not accept bribes but still deals with criminals, and who is pushed over the edge of sanity by the tragic fate of his daughter. And Elle Fanning’s portrayal of the Chief’s tragic daughter ought to earn her an Oscar nod.
The film has not been well received by critics, but I still found it fascinating. I think the most valid charge against it is that the filmmakers tried to fit too much of the 400-page novel into one film, even though it runs a few minutes longer than most. This should have been either a TV miniseries or divided into a couple of films, so much happens in it over a period of several years. Still, as a portrait of a complex man unable to escape his past, it well illustrates the apostle Paul’s warning that we reap what we sow.
This review with a set of questions will be in the Feb. 2017 issue of VP.