With “Live By Night” there’s the sinking feeling that Ben Affleck should 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 often his leading performances.
As writer, director and star, Affleck is wearing too many hats in this Prohibition-era gangster flick, and there’s the sense that he was spread too thin, and therefore the story is spread too thin. He fails to push his character of Joseph Coughlin, the gangster son of a Boston police captain (Brendan Gleeson), to the uncomfortable places that are demanded by this tale of contradictory moral and ethical extremes.
Bank robber Joe gets mixed up with the Irish and Italian mobs of Boston before he 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 Ku Klux Klan, and attempting to secure a hold on the gambling industry while wrestling with a cultural tide of religious conservatism.
There are fascinating elements of the story, including the racial tension and a tangle with the KKK, but the film merely skips along the surface of issues. And what a surface: The production and costume design and cinematography are sumptuous and gorgeous. But the hurried pace, multitude of characters and muddled plot developments make sure that the film is all surface, nothing more.
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.” 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, the film doesn’t hold together.
“Live By Night”
Rated R for strong violence, language throughout, and some sexuality/nudity. 2:08. Fayette Mall, Frankfort, Hamburg, Nicholasville, Richmond, Winchester.