Raleigh, N.C. — Look at this, folks. Positive reviews two weeks in a row! Is something wrong with me? Much like the Grinch, did my heart grow three sizes during Christmas?
No. I am still a tough critic and the Grinch is still merely acceptable and not actually good.
This week we finally get to see Ben Affleck’s latest directorial effort, Live by Night. Much like Hidden Figures, which I reviewed last week, Live by Night has been seen by critics in New York and LA already, but is moving into the rest of the country this weekend.
So far, the reviews have not been kind, and that’s a little odd. Affleck has certainly starred in his fair share of stinkers, but since he took up residence behind the camera he’s become something of a critical darling. I liked Live by Night, though and I wonder if the difference is most of the folks who have already seen the movie live in New York or LA and I have spent my whole life in the South.
Affleck plays Joe Coughlin, a man who has turned to a life of crime since returning from World War I. He and two associates knock off banks in Boston while trying to avoid getting roped into the turf war between the Irish and Italian mobs. That’s a hard thing to do for Joe, who is sleeping with the head of the Irish mob’s girlfriend (American Sniper’s Sienna Miller).
Joe’s crew gets into a chase and shootout with the cops after a bank robbery goes bad. Joe manages to escape but a cop dies and his associates are on the run. Joe shows up to meet his/the Irish mob boss’s girlfriend only to be ambushed and beaten up. Right before the mob boss (Robert Glenister, star of the British version of Law & Order) is about to have Joe killed, Joe’s dad, a detective, shows up with a bunch of cops. They save Joe’s life, but arrest him.
After Joe gets out of prison, his beloved dad is dead. His crew is on the run. He believes his girlfriend is dead. He has nowhere to turn for emotional support and no legal way to make money. So he turns to the head of the Italian mob (Italian actor Remo Girone) for a job.
Joe is put in charge of the mafia’s liquor operation in Tampa. This is slightly before prohibition, so you get a look at the South that you don’t normally see in movies. This is the Jim Crow South as part of the Industrial Revolution.
The story from here isn’t told in the fields or behind a segregated lunch counter. It’s in factories and shipping yards. Cubans and African-Americans are shown in positions of power within their communities. Segregation allows Joe’s enterprise, now accompanied by a new girlfriend (Guardians of the Galaxy’s Zoe Saldana) and her brother (singer Miguel), who are Cuban molasses barons, to thrive because cops don’t want to be “on that side of town.”
There is a B story about the local sheriff (Chris Cooper) and his daughter (Elle Fanning), who has her heart set on being a star. It becomes important, but we are risking the recap getting out of control.
The KKK is one of the main villains in Live by Night, and the movie does something really smart. It doesn’t treat the Ku Klux Klan as a bunch of terrorist hillbillies. Make no mistake, they are definitely terrorists, but Live by Night shows the realities of the Klan in the 1920s and 30s. These men were judges and business tycoons. That’s what made them dangerous. There were consequences to standing up to them.
Another strength is in the movie’s cast. I mean, you see a lot of big names there. Even Brendan Gleeson shows up as Joe’s dad in a role that maybe requires 10 total minutes of screen time. Clark Gregg from Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD shows up to deliver a total of four lines.
The standout though is Elle Fanning, who had one hell of a year in 2016. She was great in The Neon Demon and 20th Century Women and here, she’s as good as the role allows her to be. I’m not going to fall into the trap of hyperbole and say she’s the next Jodie Foster, but at 18 years old, Fanning has already established herself as more than capable of being great.
The story certainly has its share of plot holes and Ben Affleck may be a little too old for this role, but I found a lot to like about the movie. Live by Night is beautifully shot. It offers a nice reminder of Central Florida’s natural beauty pre-Disney. Plus, Chris Cooper describes his KKK operative brother-in-law as “dumb as a grape.” That alone is reason enough to pay for at the very least a matinee.
Demetri Ravanos is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association and has reviewed movies for Raleigh and Company, Military1.com and The Alan Kabel Radio Network.