In the new movie “Live by Night,” which is now showing out on Seth Child, Ben Affleck plays Coughlin. The character is also the voiceover narrator for the film, which despite its length, relies on narration to advance its story.
Coughlin is a Bostonian who fought for the U.S. in the trenches of World War I. That experience taught him (and most of a generation of Americans) to mistrust authority. Before the movie shows its characters in action, he has already told us that he resolved as a young man not to have any bosses.
Then Coughlin spends most of the movie working as a cog in an organized crime family, thus violating his own stated basic rule of conduct. And what’s worse, near the end of the film he meets an old associate who tells him she has sacrificed everything to be free. Coughlin tells her he doesn’t want to be free.
So the character takes a 180 degree philosophic turn. Is our central interest why he changes his mind?
Hardly. Screenwriter and Director Affleck have taken a book by Boston-area novelist Dennis Lehane (who also wrote “Shutter Island” and “Mystic River”) and has treated it as nothing more than an opportunity to give us another gangster movie. And this gangster movie is distinguished largely by shots of Affleck in different hats walking though different crowds.
Coughlin is a small time crook who falls in love with Emma (Sienna Miller). She is also the lover of the leader of Boston’s Irish mob, one White. The leader of the Italian mob, Pescatore, learns that Emma is being kept by the two men.
He blackmails Coughlin, who is supposed to arrange for White’s demise.
Coughlin’s father, a Boston police detective played by Brendan Gleeson, nabs White, saving his son’s life. But Emma is supposedly killed by one of White’s underlings. After three years in prison, Coughlin is hired by Pescatore to fix a problem in his Florida rum manufacturing operation. This is during prohibition, when liquor manufacture and consumption was illegal.
Our anti-hero soon fixes the failure of molasses supply by sending a middle-man (played by Anthony Michael Hall) out of town, making a territorial deal with the local law enforcement head (Kansas City’s Chris Cooper), and going into business with a local power of Cuban origin. Coughlin consolidates his position by starting up a long-running romance with the Cuban’s sister (Zoe Saldana).
But there are bumps along the way. First he has to stop the interference of Sheriff or Chief of Police Figgis’s Ku Klux Klansman brother, and he can do that only when he wins protection from revenge by the law man. Luckily for Coughlin, he knows that the cop’s daughter has gone out to Hollywood and has gotten caught in a sex trade operation that gets girls hooked on heroin.
The mob has grabbed the girl and sent her someplace to get off smack. Coughlin shows Figgis pictures of his daughter during her stint as a human trafficked, and promises to have her sent home once she’s clean. So the KKK is stopped from trying to take over the casino the Italian mob is building on the coast near Tampa.
But Figgis has some mysterious personal twist which causes him to beat his daughter once she returns to Florida. And then she begins to preach and to preach specifically against gambling, making it impossible for a law to be passed allowing the mob to move to casino operation once prohibition is over.
The daughter, by the way, is played by Elle Fanning, and Dakota’s younger sister is absolutely terrific here. Expect to see her in a number of movies before long.
After the casino failure, the Boston boss comes down to demote Coughlin. Whether or not that’s fair, the hat wearer can’t have it. There’s a good shoot-out scene, one of several in this film, and then we get summaries of what happens to all of the surviving characters.
The film’s failure to show why Coughlin changed his mind about freedom from supervision, though, makes it a pretentious action picture rather than something more enjoyable to watch.