Tackling his second screen version of a Dennis Lehane novel (remember 2007’s Gone Baby Gone?), Ben Affleck this time exposes his strengths as a director as dramatically as he does his weaknesses as a writer and leading man.
In this sprawling crime drama, set in the Prohibition Era of the 1920s, Affleck plays Joe Coughlin, a disillusioned World War I soldier and son of a police captain (Brendan Gleeson) who returns to his Boston hometown, becomes a bank robber and, many hours later, matures into a wealthy kingpin Florida-based rumrunner. Between those plot goalposts, Coughlin, a big old softie at heart, does prison time, gets roughed up by Irish mobsters, conducts a brazenly public love affair with a vicious mob boss’ brassy main squeeze (Sienna Miller), runs afoul of murderous mafia bootleggers, tangles with the Ku Klux Klan and a compromised police chief (Chris Cooper), goes head to head with a troubled young evangelical Aimee Semple McPherson-like leader (Elle Fanning) and finds passion and a kind of grace with a wealthy, fiery Cuban businesswoman and do-gooder (Zoe Saldana)—a legendary figure in Ybor City, “the Harlem of Tampa.”
That’s a lot of plot real estate to cover, but with a leaner, smarter screenplay than Affleck himself has delivered, the sprawl could have remained just as epic, the intentions just as ambitious and noble, the impact just as incisive and intimate as, oh, say, The Godfather. With its overdeveloped plot and underdeveloped characters, Live By Night is a long way from the great movie for which Affleck was clearly aiming. In fact, it’s kind of a mess—so much so that you watch it thinking it might have been better, and more coherent, as an HBO series a la Boardwalk Empire. And in the kind of role that, in the glory days of Warner Bros. gangster flicks of the ‘30s and ‘40s would have been played by a blazingly charismatic scene-grabber like James Cagney or Humphrey Bogart, Affleck doesn’t cut it. Here Affleck—at least a decade too old for the role, despite CGI assistance—comes off as sullen and stodgy. So, despite lots of good stuff, is the 129-minute movie. Although gorgeously shot by Robert Richardson (The Hateful Eight) and sporting impeccable period production design and costumes, Live By Night feels like a slog through a wayback machine, a pastiche of great scenes and themes from older, better movies, with a lot of good actors playing dress-up.
It also messes up period details. Check out the scene in which Affleck and Messina meet for the first time the powerful Suarez brother-and-sister team, played by Saldana and Miguel. Neither actor removes his hat as he walks in, despite how badly they’re trying to make a good impression, let alone the presence of woman. If you’re going to make a neo-noir period movie, better make sure the behavioral details are on point.
Affleck does manage to snap his movie to life a few times—during a terrific, post-bank robbery chase and shoot-out, for instance. But mostly it meanders so much that an entire subplot involving the hero’s brother (played by Scott Eastwood) was cut, although he’s mentioned several times in dialogue. Often, it’s up to the cast to take up the slack, with Chris Messina (lively and on-the-make as Affleck’s second-in-command), an especially good Fanning and a deeply troubled Cooper running away with their scenes. Affleck should be commended for shooting high, but in the end, Live By Night turns out to be just a glossy, pretty, maddeningly generic fedora fest.