ReelBob: ‘Live by Night’

By Bob Bloom

“Live by Night” would have greatly benefited if Ben Affleck had committed wholly to embracing the dark side of his rum-running bootlegger.

Instead, Affleck, who also wrote the script and directed the movie, based on a novel by Dennis Lehane, goes to great pains to give his Joe Coughlin a moral code and honorable set of ethics.

Yes, Coughlin kills people — lots of them — but, per his view, they deserved to die.

Affleck’s use of voice-over narration reinforces his character’s outlook, as well as Affleck the director’s need to make audiences understand and sympathize with Coughlin.

“Live by Night” reeks of pretention as if Affleck was not satisfied with making a simple crime drama, but, instead, had to infuse it with messages and observations that seem aimed at today’s political and social climate.

The film crawls along, interspersed by kinetic moments of violence. It is unevenly paced, cold and uninvolving.

“Live by Night” lacks focus as Affleck tries to paint too broad a stroke on a two-wide canvas. It would have served the film better if Affleck had not directed. An outsider perhaps would have pushed Coughlin into more vicious and violent places where Affleck was unwilling to go.

You don’t care about many of the film’s characters. The one who truly creates empathy is Elle Fanning’s Loretta Figgis who, after a brutal experience in California, returns to her Florida home, finds religion and begins proselytizing — which brings her into conflict with the goals of Coughlin and his gangster associates.

The film basically centers on Coughlin’s attempts to corner Florida’s rum market during Prohibition and, after the amendment’s repeal, he switches to gambling to continue his criminal enterprises.

Along the way, the Boston-born Coughlin — seen as an outsider by most of the Florida establishment — battles other gangs and the Ku Klux Klan and forms uneasy alliances with local police officials and politicians.

His strongest bonds are created with the Cuban émigrés who manufacture bootleg rum — and are exploited by their Caucasian counterparts.
Creating a strong attachment with Coughlin benefits both parties.

Despite all these appealing subplots, “Live by Night” never gels. It is scattershot and overly ambitious.

It also is boring and — at 128 minutes — feels so much longer. The film is loaded with anticlimaxes, and director Affleck feels compelled to tie up every loose end.

Despite all that transpires in the movie, it still feels incomplete — at times, like a promo reel for a more ambitious project.

“Live by Night” is weighed down by Affleck’s ambitions to create more than a simple gangster film. As good as he is as a director, this is one case in which his reach outdistances his grasp.

Bob Bloom is a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association. His reviews appear at ReelBob ( and Rottentomatoes ( He also reviews Blu-rays and DVDs. He can be reached by email at or on Twitter @ReelBobBloom.

2 stars out of 4
(R), graphic violence, sexual content, nudity, language