With “Live By Night” there’s the sinking feeling that Ben Affleck should perhaps reconsider his tendency to star in the films he directs. He’s proven to be a gifted filmmaker, but the weaknesses in his oeuvre are more often than not his leading performances, which are usually the least interesting parts of his films. He seems to excel when working with a talented lead actor (his brother Casey, in “Gone Baby Gone,” for example) or when a director pushes him to give a complex performance (David Fincher in “Gone Girl”).
In “Live By Night,” writer, director and star Affleck is wearing too many hats — he literally wears a lot of hats in this Prohibition-era gangster flick — and there’s the sense that maybe he was spread too thin, and therefore the story is spread too thin. As a director, he’s too enamored of his star to push the character of Joseph Coughlin, the gangster son of a Boston police captain (Brendan Gleeson), to the uncomfortable places that are demanded by this tale steeped in contradictory moral and ethical extremes.
Young bank robber Joe finds himself mixed up with the Irish and Italian mobs of Boston before he ultimately takes over the rum-running trade in Tampa on behalf of the Italian mob boss. Joe’s hell-bent on enacting revenge on Irish boss Albert White (Robert Glenister), a former romantic rival, whom he blames for the death of their shared lady love, Irish immigrant flapper Emma (Sienna Miller).
That vengeful fire is what drives him to seek more and more power in Tampa, partnering with a pair of Cuban siblings, one of whom he falls in love with (Zoe Saldana), driving out the Klan, and attempting to secure a hold on the gambling industry while wrestling with a cultural tide of religious conservatism. As a screenwriter, Affleck takes his source material from Dennis Lehane’s 2012 crime novel, and in the adaptation, it seems he’s bitten off more than he can chew. Instead of narrowing the focus, Affleck tries to stuff more and more in — more plot twists, more characters, more shootouts.
There are fascinating elements of the story, including the racial tension and a tangle with a hypocritical KKK, but the film doesn’t sink deeply into one issue, merely skipping along the surface. And what a surface — the production and costume design and cinematography by Robert Richardson are impeccable; sumptuous and simply gorgeous to look at. But the hurried pace, multitude of characters and muddled plot developments make sure that the film is all surface, nothing else.
One of the more compelling characters is Tampa police chief Irving Figgis (Chris Cooper), a straight-arrow sheriff who looks the other way at bootlegging if the crooks follow his rules. His life intertwines tragically with Joe’s, the choices each man makes determining the other’s fate. Cooper is heart-wrenching in his performance, one of the only affecting aspects of “Live By Night.” One wishes that their intimate dilemmas had been the real meat of the story, and not a tangential afterthought.
The filmmaking craft on display is laudable, but the story is rote and unfocused. The material would have been better served if expanded for more detail, or contracted to a smaller scale. The puzzle pieces are there, but without a strong leading performance or cohesive script, it just doesn’t hold together.
Rating: ☆☆ 1/2
Cast: Ben Affleck, Zoe Saldana, Chris Cooper, Sienna Miller, Brendan Gleeson, Chris Messina, Elle Fanning.
Writer-director: Ben Affleck. Based on the novel by Dennis Lehane.
A Warner Bros. release. Running time: 128 minutes. Vulgar language, strong violence, sexual situations, nudity, adult themes. Playing at area theaters.