The tale begins in Prohibition Era Boston, and whether he likes it or not, Joe Coughlin (Affleck) is married to the gangster life, mostly due to the fact he’s having an affair with Emma Gould (Sienna Miller), the partner of the uncompromising crime lord Albert White (Robert Glenister), head of the Irish mafia. An outlaw with a cop for a father (Brendan Gleeson), Joe’s secret is uncovered by a rival gang leader, and if this information was to leak he’d be lucky to see another sunrise.
Reading that synopsis you’d think you’d be dealing with a straightforward narrative, but that’s not even half of it, as we meet several other characters along the way, ranging from Elle Fanning’s Loretta, to Chris Messina’s Dion Bartolo, as well as Zoe Saldana’s Graciela – and it becomes something of a challenge to keep on top of it all. When vying to cover so much ground it dilutes the emotional impact the film has on the viewer, as we never know where, or who, to focus on attentions on.
Visually, however, Live by Night is a treat, with 1926 Boston illuminating the screen; the hats, the cars, the sepia tinged aesthetic, lending itself so well to the big screen, drenched in cinematic tradition, with Affleck evidently aware of this fact, affectionately adhering to the conventionality, happy to veer away from realism to enhance the cinematic nature of the piece. The only thing missing is splurge guns. Affleck is sure to maintain a realism in the violence however, as there’s a distinct brutality to this, unforgiving in its implementation, with the sound of gun shots unrelenting, ringing through your ears long after the credits roll.
But the film loses its way dramatically once we leave Boston behind and head to Florida. When circling around the protagonist, studiously lingering over his affair with Emma, and his relationship with his father, it’s absorbing cinema, with one scene at a restaurant in particular standing out. But then we head to Florida; a place where old people go to retire, and this film goes to die.