Spoilers aplenty below.
Live By Night is a gangster film set in early 20th century Boston and Florida. Ben Affleck, who also directs and wrote the screenplay by adapting a Dennis Lehane novel, stars as Joe Coughlin, the son of a Boston-based Police Chief of Irish descent.
Coughlin returns from the Great War in Europe in 1918 disillusioned by the killing of so many of his compatriots, while the people higher up in society remained largely unscathed or even profited from the war. He vows never to let anyone tell him what to do again and becomes a small-time ‘outlaw’ in Boston. He and two accomplices commit bank robberies and other crimes. They do this outside of the major Irish and Italian crime organisations operating in Boston who are fighting each other for control. Inevitably he gets caught up in the Boston gangster scene. In no small part due to the fact he is having a relationship with Emma Gould, the Moll of the head of the Irish faction Albert White. After a bank raid goes wrong, Coughlin and Gould plan to go to California, but White and his accomplices capture him with the help of Emma who betrays him to save herself. Coughlin seems doomed, but the police arrive to arrest him for the bank job, and therefore stop his murder. He only gets three years in prison largely due to the influence of his father who has damaging information about the prosecutor of the case.
Coughlin’s father tells him that Emma was killed by White, and when he gets out of prison he goes to the head of the Italian faction, Maso Pescatore, so he can get a chance to kill Albert White for killing Emma. Pescatore tells him that in the three years he’s been in prison White and his gang have been driven out of Boston. He gives Coughlin the job of running the Italian prohibition busting rum smuggling operation from Florida to Boston.
Coughlin takes over and runs the rum smuggling operation very successfully for years in combination with the Cuban’s and other immigrants. He falls for and marries Graciela, the sister of the head of the Cuban smuggling business. Everything is operating fine until prohibition repeal starts to be discussed. Coughlin attempts to build a large casino to switch the business from smuggling to gambling, but his plans are derailed by a young girl preacher who turns the town against the idea. At the same time, the local KKK faction is trying to muscle in on the speakeasy and future casino businesses. They also don’t like the fact that Coughlin and others are living with Cuban’s and other non-white people. Coughlin sorts out the KKK, but he later gets double-crossed by Pescatore. Fortunately, he see’s this coming and has a plan in place…
The acting in Live By Night is great. Sienna Miller as fantastic as the Moll Emma Gould. Her Cork accent is fantastic. Elle Fanning isn’t in the film much, but her portrayal of the young preacher Loretta Figgis is fantastic. Fanning was in my favourite film from 2016 (The Neon Demon). She is turning into an excellent actor. The rest of the cast are good, but Miller and Fanning stand out. The script is good, the cinematography is first class, and the film looks gorgeous. The sets and costumes all fit into the 1920’s to 1940’s vibe. Perhaps a bit to clean and sharp for depression period America, but I wasn’t there so can’t say. It didn’t detract from the feel.
I liked Live By Night. It had all the tropes you would expect in a north-east American gangster film. And you need those tropes in a film of this type or you might feel short-changed. It is done well and has a few twists you might not expect. I rated it 8/10. Close to a 9, but not quite. I would recommend seeing it.