’Live By Night’ falls victim to its source material

Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck) in “Live By Night.” (Courtesy photo)

By Trey Hilburn III

“This is so different from the book,” “I can’t believe they left this out of the movie.” Book to film comparisons have always been the equivalent of the ever living hipster, who constantly has to remind you they were into something before it was cool. Well, congrats to those folks, because “Live By Night” spites itself in order to make the book/film comparison people “happy.”

The story, based on the popular Dennis Lehane novel, follows outlaw, Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck) during the turbulent Prohibition Era. Coughlin sticks to low-level outlaw deeds and makes it a point to steer clear of both of Boston’s Irish and Italian criminal organizations. When Coughlin falls victim to blackmail, he is thrown into a crossfire between the two outfits.

Coughlin is sent South to help distribute rum back North. Taking over won’t be easy. He faces challenges from the KKK, law officials and religious groups.

Affleck stars, pens and directs this one. He has had a steady stream of well-received work. From “The Town” to “Argo,” he has left little room for negative critique. Affleck perfectly captures the 1920s. Careful attention to cinematography and production design helped the film achieve a tactile world. The characters that inhabit the world are pulp-caricatures that help the film achieve an almost comic book feel at its heights.

Eruptions of action in the form of intense shootouts or white knuckle car chase scenes give the film weight, when contrast against the background of its dialogue and historical elements. The first act of the film, manages to pull you in with its Prohibition Era violent charm. The introduction to the world will have fans of the gangster genre buckling-in for a specific experience.

The problems come in the form of a love for the book’s material. Affleck sticks entirely too close within its borders. He polishes the central story and then piles on unnecessary ancillary narratives. Entire characters are introduced only to be half snuffed out in a garbled exposition. Even Coughlin’s father, played by Brendan Gleeson, is introduced and then tossed out willy-nilly.

Affleck does the equivalent of sitting on a suitcase that is overflowing, in order to make the latches lock. The inclusion of B, C and D side-stories interfere with the flow of the film and make it a choppy experience that leaves certain areas feeling incomplete.

For example, there is a part where the mafia and the KKK go to war with each other. Instead of showing this, Coughlin gives a couple of lines of voice over, while the screen flashes a couple of people who were executed in the conflict. After that, it isn’t mentioned again. There are a few similar situations that pull from what the audience would have wanted to see. Instead of showing us those things, we instead cut to characters that were on the sidelines. Suddenly, they are brought in without establishing a reason why we should care about them.

At its best, “Live By Night” is a fantastic piece of pulp gangster film. At its worst it is too focused on fitting an entire book into its narrative, even if it means sinking the ship under the weight. It is well-directed, but falls under the tires of its love for the source material. This is a case example as to why things need to be cut and why the film (sometimes) needs to be different from the book.