Live By Night is the definition of a film which fails to add up to the sum of its parts. Those parts are sporadically impressive enough to keep Ben Affleck’s latest directorial outing watchable, but they mostly suggest a far better film that exists just beyond the margins of this one. Adapted from Dennis Lehane’s novel, whose work Affleck previously brought to the screen to better effect with Gone Baby Gone, Live By Night retains much of Lehane’s knack for the verbal and tactical cadences of criminal operation, but condenses the crime author’s typically labyrinthine storytelling into a kind of CliffsNotes edition of a more fully realized film.
It’s the late 1920s in America. The first World War ended some time ago, but its echoes are still felt. Prohibition is still in full swing, and bootleggers are making a mint dealing vices to the people, with or without the assistance of the law. Much of the organized crime of the time runs down racial and family lines. And at the center of it all sits Joe Coughlin (Affleck), an expert bank robber with grander ambitions for himself after returning home from the war to a country in turmoil. Despite the protestations of his father (Brendan Gleeson), a police captain, Joe ends up becoming involved with Emma Gould (Sienna Miller), the mistress of the local Irish mob boss, Albert White (Robert Glenister). As these things usually do, their torrid affair takes a dark and bloody turn, and Joe finds himself with little waiting for him after a three-year prison stint.
Live By Night is the kind of film that starts as one film and becomes several others before it’s over, and the first of those jarring jumps comes when Joe emerges from prison and heads south with his old partner Dion (Chris Messina) to Ybor City (just outside of Tampa), a territory practically gift-wrapped for Joe to take over. Once there, he encounters every imaginable obstacle, from the KKK to the moralizing of revival churches to Chief Figgis (Chris Cooper), an ethically blurry type who curtly informs Joe upon their first meeting that he breathes the air of corrupt people, but is not corrupt himself. Soon Joe is running a modest empire, a home with the headstrong Graciela (Zoe Saldana), and a relationship with the rival Italian mob in Boston, through their boss Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone). That is, until it all starts to go to hell.
Affleck’s film sprawls, tracing Joe’s trajectory from his Boston days to his start in Ybor City to his eventual goals of building a casino and cementing his legacy in a more tangible (and relatively legal) way. Yet early and often, Live By Night exhibits the curious and eventually frustrating habit of blitzing through some of the biggest moments in Joe’s life, in order to linger on the more innocuous ones in between. Much of the illicit pleasure of the great gangster films comes from seeing a thug with dreams overcome every obstacle, often by force. Force is not Live By Night’s initial intention, which is fine, but the maudlin romantic exchanges and off-key bits of dirty banter that Affleck peppers into his screenplay offer a poor substitute. And the film’s pervasive narration, full of helpful markers like “We cornered the rum market and lived like kings,” is equally tedious. It’s an odd thing to watch a crime film where much of the criminal drama occurs off screen.
What occurs onscreen, then, is a parade of mismatched tones that are occasionally effective, but more often maddening. At points, Night is a crime drama, a caper, a violent parable about the cyclical nature of revenge, a religious parable, a romantic melodrama, and an action film. While this balancing act might have been riveting, particularly in the hands of a filmmaker who’s previously shown himself to be gifted at this sort of thing, Live By Night feels like an epic without an identity. Relationships are established, and then rapidly dashed. Motifs and themes are introduced, and then disappear for prolonged stretches of the story before picking back up in tepid fashion. The continuous layering of stories only diminishes the film’s larger thesis, and that thesis itself is largely rooted in cliché: society breeds the corruption in the hearts of men, and one always reaps what they sow.
Affleck is paying homage to the classics here, from The Godfather’s stark, sudden bursts of violence to Mean Streets’ intersections of crime and religion. And as such, it’s in the director’s chair that he seems most assured. Robert Richardson’s (Hugo, JFK, Django Unchained) crisp photography captures the sweat and dust of bygone Florida, and keeps the film’s kinetic bursts of violence exciting enough. While Live By Night’s more notable action set pieces fall short of Affleck’s work in The Town and Argo, an early bank robbery gone wrong and a late-film hotel raid are stylish and bracing in their violence. If they also feel at odds with the film’s generally old-fashioned aesthetics, well, much of the film is at odds with itself.
That tonal inconsistency is something of a shame, because Affleck has always been a talented director of actors, and Live By Night is hardly an exception, even if some of the material isn’t up to snuff. Various actors do capable work in character roles; Cooper, as a chief whose life ends up in turmoil thanks to Joe’s arrival, is just one standout. Elle Fanning gives the film’s best turn as Chief Figgis’ daughter Lucinda, who heads off to Hollywood for a screen test and returns to Florida scarred with track marks, before reinventing herself as a fire-and-brimstone preacher. (Between this role and her turn in The Neon Demon, Fanning’s had a gritty year in Tinseltown.) Matthew Maher is memorable in a small role as Figgis’ brother, a drawling but razor-sharp Klansman. And Saldana brings more gravitas to her underwritten lover than it warrants on paper; she lends depth to Graciela when the film largely centers her as less of a character than a manifestation of Joe’s growth and desires.
Oddly, the film’s most distracting performance is the one front and center. Affleck has given effective turns in his own work in the past, but for all the dramatic heavy lifting that Joe is tasked with doing throughout Live By Night, the actor relies so heavily on his latter-era glower that it becomes monotonous after a time. Joe is a smoother kind of operator, but one being slowly torn apart under the pressure of his compiling sins and the need to make a safer, better life for his beloved, and it’s a dramatic arc that neither Affleck nor the film conveys effectively enough to give the inevitably grisly climax any kind of lasting weight. It’s a leading turn that isn’t as dynamic as many of the performances surrounding it.
Live By Night is at its most effective when it embraces the specific themes of time and place, which are about the only qualities that distinguish it from any number of other stories of criminal empires rising and falling. But even these come and go; the film’s meditations on religion are effective if rote, but Affleck misses larger opportunities throughout. There’s little attention given to the more engaging subtext of the various religion-based criminal economies in the film’s world, and barely more to the wrenching moral pain of Joe’s slow realization that gangsters don’t just get to become the hero because they’ve self-actualized. Where the film could understate its themes of forgiveness and salvation, Live By Night instead has a character mutter “repent” under his breath ad nauseum.
Where nuance could exist, too often Affleck chooses a smart suit and a smoking gun instead. From the shock-heavy screenplay, which sees Affleck dipping into the Tarantino playbook of establishing an era through its wealth of racial slurs, to the oddly blasé attitude the film takes about death at many points, it’s the sort of film that attempts to offset its giddy, period-era gangster revivalism with a few ham-handed lessons about how bad its behavior is. In its unwillingness to settle on a singular approach, Live By Night undercuts the things that occasionally do work, and leaves it a film in search of a grander purpose. It’s the rare Hollywood movie that’ll leave you wishing three-hour cuts were still in fashion at the studio level, just to see this as it could’ve been.