Ben Affleck's fourth film, Live by Night, which is based on the 2012 novel by Dennis Lehane, might as well be titled The Good Gangster. While the film is clearly Affleck's love letter to the storied gangster genre, whose roots stretch from James Cagney and Paul Muni and Howard Hawks to Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, and Martin Scorsese, he seems clearly frightened by the prospect that his gangster-antihero will be more "anti" than "hero," so he softens him to the point of blandness. Affleck's Joe Coughlin, a World War I veteran whose time in the trenches taught him a thing or two about why following others' rules isn't always a good thing, starts as a robber and graduates to gangland muscle, but he never really succumbs to the darkness or even flirts with its edges. He's a romantic at heart whose criminal enterprise-bootlegging-has long since taken on a romanticized air, and even though he deploys violence from time to time, it is against people whose corruption is so blatant that the bloodshed becomes justice well deserved.
The story begins in Boston, which has been the backdrop for two of Affleck's previous three directorial efforts (2007's Gone Baby Gone, which was also based on a Lehane novel, and 2010's The Town), where Joe graduates from petty robberies of banks and poker games to working for Albert White (Robert Glenister), head of the city's Irish mob. The problem is that Joe is carrying on an affair with Albert's platinum girlfriend, Emma Gould (Sienna Miller), a side activity that is sure to cause him problems down the road-problems that nearly get him killed.
Joe winds up going to prison, although his time there is shortened by the intervention of his father, Thomas Coughlin (Brendan Gleeson), a conflicted police captain who is all too aware of his son's criminal endeavors. When Joe gets out, he has nothing but righteous vengeance on the mind, which is why he takes up with Italian mobster Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone), Albert's chief rival, who sends him and his right-hand man Dion Bartolo (Chris Messina) down to the small burg of Ybor, Florida (the so-called "Harlem of Tampa"), where he is to oversee the rum-running down there. Joe is extremely successful, running a massive operation while looking to a future in gambling since he knows that the Volstead Act won't last forever. He also becomes romantically involved with Graciella Suarez (Zoe Saldana), the sister of his Cuban mob connection in Florida, and gets mixed up with police chief Irving Figgis (Chris Cooper), whose virginal daughter (Elle Fanning) gets corrupted out in Los Angeles and comes back to Florida, reinvented as a revival-tent preacher whose popular admonitions against gambling threaten to wreck Joe's plans.
As that brief synopsis should make clear, Live by Night is a sprawling would-be period epic, although Affleck was apparently convinced that he could somehow cram it all into a little over two hours. He does, but it stifles the material. He and editor William Goldenberg (who won an Oscar for editing Affleck's most recent film, Argo) keep the pace humming, and the film never drags, but almost every aspect of it feels short-changed, abrupt, or minimized. Joe's romantic travails shift too rapidly from Emma to Graciella, and his ascent within the ranks of the Italian mob flies by, giving us no sense of his having to work for anything; rather, it feels like everything just falls into his lap, but is then yanked away when it is dramatically useful. It doesn't help that Joe lacks real bite as a character and Affleck's performance is far too reserved and upstanding. There is supposed to be conflict between his sense of decency and the nasty business in which he deals (he repeatedly refuses to be defined as "a gangster"), but Affleck never lets the film get truly nasty. Joe is always above it all, so that when the violence erupts, it is neatly justified-especially when Joe and Dion take on members of the Ku Klux Klan who don't like their involvement with the Cubans (although I have to admit that Matthew Maher's lisping, wild-eyed take on a maybe dim-witted, maybe brilliant Klan leader gave the film a much-needed breath of twisted, deranged air around the midway point).
The story builds to an intense and clever gun battle staged inside an elaborate, multi-story Florida hotel, and Affleck makes great visual use of open staircases, windows flooded with hot afternoon light, and gun-toting goons in slick suits ducking behind corners and bars and huge pieces of furniture. It's a reminder that Affleck is a crackerjack director when he's on his game, which we saw in each of his previous films (including 2012's Oscar-winning Argo, which is the opposite of this film in that it tells a short, concise story in intense detail, rather than trying to cover huge swaths of narrative in broad strokes). There are definitely things to admire in Live by Night, especially its visual sensibility; Robert Richardson's silky cinematography doesn't try to ape the classics, but rather finds its own unique look. And, let's face it, everyone looks fantastic in three-piece suits, sequined flapper dresses, and fedoras. But, that's just the problem. The film looks great, but too much of it feels reheated, overly familiar, and overly cautious. This is the film where Affleck needed to really cut loose, but instead he played it safe.
Copyright © 2017 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Warner Bros.
Overall Rating: (2)
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