After three critically acclaimed directorial efforts under his belt, including 2012’s Best Picture winner Argo, Ben Affleck goes behind the camera once again for the Prohibition-era gangster tale Live By Night, adapted from the Dennis Lehane novel of the same name. Despite an incredibly talented supporting cast, lavish production design and gorgeous cinematography from Robert Richardson, the film ultimately falls well short of Affleck’s previous work.
In 1920s Boston, Joe Coughlin (Affleck) returns from the war to carve himself a niche as a talented stickup artist, much to the chagrin of his police captain father (Brendan Gleeson). As Joe’s reputation grows, he’s approached by Irish mobster Albert White (Robert Glenister), currently embroiled in a war with Italian leader Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone) for control of the city’s rackets. “I don’t truck with gangsters,” Joe says, but his ongoing affair with White’s mistress (Sienna Miller) says otherwise, and their ill-advised trysts ultimately lead to a series of events that land Joe behind bars.
Three years later, Joe leaves prison to discover the city is now completely under Pescatore’s control, and White has been exiled to Florida, where he’s attempting to muscle in on the rum trade. Pescatore recruits Joe and sends him to Tampa along with his former stickup partner Dion (Chris Messina) to oversee operations and ensure that White and his crew aren’t given the opportunity to establish a foothold in the region. Eager for revenge, but knowing the dish is best served cold, Joe sets up shop in Ybor City and begins meticulously dismantling the White organization, one piece at a time.
It’s no coincidence that Live By Night, as a film, begins to head south around the same time as its leading character. Once Joe arrives in Florida, new characters and subplots are introduced at a rapid pace that overcomplicates the narrative and robs the film of any momentum built during the first act. There’s Cuban immigrant Graciela (Zoe Saldana), with whom Joe immediately begins a relationship; local police chief Irving Figgis (Chris Cooper), whose daughter (Elle Fanning) dreams of becoming a Hollywood star but returns to the city with a new purpose; and R.D. Pruitt (Matthew Maher), a violent and maniacal Klansman who sees Joe’s criminal empire and interracial romance as the embodiment of sin, and who also happens to be the sheriff’s brother-in-law.
At 400 pages, Lehane’s novel might have been able to successfully juggle each of these threads – along with yet another storyline involving Joe’s aspirations to go legit as a major investor in a casino – but at just over two hours, Live By Night can’t possibly devote the necessary screen time to give each of these developments enough breathing room. On the one hand, Affleck’s faithfulness to the source material is admirable, but it’s maddeningly frustrating on the other, as the film’s second half careens haphazardly from scene to scene in a mad dash to tie up any loose ends. A narrative this complex would no doubt have been served better with a miniseries adaptation, or by excising some of the extraneous material in favor of a more focused and cohesive story.
From a performance standpoint, however, Live By Night is nearly flawless. Clad in tailored suits and a fedora, the square-jawed Affleck definitely looks the part of the early 20th-century gangster, and he brings a certain amount of swagger to the role that never feels like he’s showboating. Cooper, Gleeson and Saldana are uniformly excellent, although each could have used a bit more screen time, and Messina elevates himself to new heights in a charming, scene-stealing turn as Joe’s stalwart second-in-command. It’s Fanning who serves as the film’s weakest link, unable to sell her character’s transition from wide-eyed Hollywood hopeful to something else entirely, and a key scene between her and Joe fails to hit the emotional notes it strains for.
As a director, Affleck was bound to stumble eventually, and it’s disappointing that Live By Night doesn’t quite live up to its pedigree. But although this is easily Affleck’s worst film, that doesn’t mean it’s a bad one – it’s well-acted, beautifully shot and offers plenty of action, and it’s still a cut above the very best efforts by some directors. Just don’t expect another masterpiece.