After the huge commercial and critical success of Argo—not to mention a couple of Oscars—many have wondered what Ben Affleck might do next as a director in between Batman flicks. Returning to the pages of Dennis Lehane always looked like a promising choice since Affleck’s 2007 directorial debut was the Lehane adaptation Gone Baby Gone, which starred his brother Casey. But, as it turns out, Live by Night is a completely different beast, essentially operating as a Prohibition-era crime drama that starts out in Boston before quickly shifting its story gears to Florida.
In his new directorial effort, Affleck plays Joe Coughlin, a World War I vet who’s returned to the crime-ridden streets of Boston where his father (Brendan Gleeson) is a police captain. He soon gets into trouble with the Irish mob boss, whose girlfriend Emma (Sienna Miller) Joe has been seeing on the sly, knowing full well how dangerous that is. When the city’s Italian crime chief realizes this, he holds the info over Joe to force him to help with his businesses down in Florida.
Once there, Joe hooks up with a Cuban woman (Zoe Saldana) who can aid Joe in getting the molasses he needs to make rum, which is in high demand. While this is occurring, the rising gangster also tries to corner the market by building a casino with the assistance of the area’s religious police chief (Chris Cooper) and maybe even his wayward daughter Loretta (Emma Fanning). And during much of that, Joe is simultaneously being hustled by the area’s racist KKK element, as represented by a piece of work named RD Pruitt.
As you can imagine, that’s a lot of characters to keep track of, especially when you consider that the movie’s opening sets up a bunch of plotlines that are mostly ignored until close to the finale. Without having read Lehane’s novel, it’s hard to know whether he found a smoother way of introducing so many characters in such a short amount of time, but just as you’re adjusting to what’s happening in Boston, everything shifts forward in time and location.
For a movie where so much occurs in the first 30 minutes, the pace still tends to drag and, at times, is as slow as hell. A lot of these problems can be attributed to Affleck’s stilted screenplay that never quite finds the right tone, as well as another flat and lifeless performance from him as an actor that pulls the rest of his cast down. Affleck has improved his visual sense as a director, which at times helps to alleviate some of the film’s pacing issues, but a bank robbery that leads to a high-speed car chase only breaks up the monotony for so long.
Once the story moves to Florida, it at least offers the saving grace of a heavier, bearded Chris Messina as Dion Bartolo, Joe’s old partner who he reteams with and who adds a much-needed bit of levity to the otherwise grim proceedings. Elle Fanning is also quite good in a role that’s fairly layered and more grown-up than what we’ve seen from her in the past. That said, Affleck’s movie has been so seedy up to that point, you half expect Joe to get involved with the underage Loretta, a thought that ruins their relatively decent scenes together. Saldana’s Cuban accent sounds distressingly fake considering her own Latin background.
Watching Live by Night, it’s hard not to think that the Coens did this sort of thing much better with Miller’s Crossing, and it was foolhardy for Affleck to think he could make a gangster flick half as memorable. The whole thing ends up being a grim affair that leaves you coming out the other side wondering what the point of any of it was.
Live by Night expands nationwide on Friday, Jan. 13. This review was first published on Dec. 21.