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Film Review: “Live By Night” Is Not Your Typical Gangster Film

I really liked Live By Night, but it is not your typical gangster film. Yes, it has the bloody violence that, at times, will make you squeamish with “gutty” close-ups. Yet, the film is about the beginning and end of Joe Coughlin’s life in crime, but it is the ending, that I feel, will have people divided.

Live By Night is based of the acclaimed novel of the same name, written by Dennis Lehane. Ben Affleck is fantastic as Joe Coughlin, and seems to be having a good time as the smart, quietly noble, and quick-witted gangster. Notice, I mentioned attributes not usually associated with a mafia criminal, which explain why Joe never really fits in to that world. The whole movie, morally, is about Joe measuring his capacity to be the cruelty the mafia asks of its members. The film spans about two decades, with Coughlin going from a common thief and son of Boston’s Superintendent to a second-in-command mob boss running a Tampa bootlegging ring during Prohibition. He makes money and enemies with other mafia- kings and the KKK. This note was particularly hard to watch, especially because of the current alt-right/ KKK uprisings in power. Seeing them burn crosses and kill innocent black people in their homes or while dancing in a speakeasy felt heightened in urgency, shock, and fear given the current political climate. Yet, Coughlin is a man whom believes in equality and has a certain amount of dignity, despite his line of work.

Throughout the film Coughlin is surrounded by a range characters, whom either struggle with their morality or have given into the fight. People like his best friend Dion Bartolo, whom is played phenomenally and hilariously by Chris Messina. His fierce loyalty to Coughlin simmers down. slightly, the fact that he is maniacal with bloodlust. Sienna Miller plays Emma Gould the duplicitous lover of Coughlin that sets him on a life-changing journey into crime. Then, there is Elle Fanning as the heartbreakingly lost Loretta Figgis. Daughter of Chief Irving Figgis (played as a fractured man by Chris Cooper), Loretta is torn apart from one addiction to the next. She goes from heroin to religion, and never realizes her full worth as a human being. She is a walking tragedy, and one of the few people Coughlin ever protects beyond his beloved wife Graciela ( Zoe Saldana).  Fanning plays her like a lost young woman whose light dims because of the excesses of the world, which is ultimately the message of the movie.

Joe becomes an “outlaw”, as he calls it, because for him politicians and gangsters are all the same: they take the work of the “little guy”, put a carrot/dream in front of him, and make sure he never gets it. Affleck plays him as a man disillusioned by the world’s violent choices from policies to family. Hence, does Live By Night have a happy ending? Sort of. Spoiler Alert: Joe Coughlin does not die. Hence, my theory that people will not be to keen on seeing a man that killed and lived on the edge, walk away with a family. Yet, I found the ending nice, and relevant to an earlier remark by Coughlin’s wise father, played by Brendan Gleeson. “What you put out in the universe, always comes back to you…. It just comes back in an unexpected way.” Coughlin pays heavy prices for his sins, but, ultimately, learns this lesson, and the audience does, as well. Live By Night Comes Out in Select Theaters December 23.