Live by Night is a glossy and bloody prohibition-era set film about Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck), an Irish gangster. Based on Dennis Lehane’s novel, and written, directed, and produced by Affleck, this crime drama aspires to be a Big American Epic, but never comes close to achieving greatness. The film crams several stories into 128 sluggish minutes, only one of which is truly interesting. The few action sequences are better than the drama — surely a bad sign. And even that is damning with faint praise. An early car chase is exciting, but long stretches of the film are dull, even when there are a series of explosions (meant to jolt sleeping viewers awake?) A climactic shootout has some life, until it just gets confusing. It appears as if Affleck bit off more than he could chew and hoped it all hung together with chewing gum.
The story opens in 1920s Boston, where there is a rum war between the Irish, led by Albert White (Robert Glenister), and the Italians, led by Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone). Joe Couglin is in love with Albert’s girlfriend, Emma (Sienna Miller) and as they plot to run away together, a double-cross occurs. Joe, who is kicked by Albert’s men so hard he throws up, ends up in the hospital.
He eventually makes a deal with Maso to get revenge on Albert. Joe heads down to Ybor City, Florida (dubbed “The Harlem of Tampa”) to run the booze with the Cubans. He meets the sexy Graciela (Zoe Saldana) and while she insists, “We will not be lovers,” the next scene has them kissing and having sex. Yes, Live by Night is that obvious.
As Joe takes over Tampa, and starts canoodling with Graciela, he attracts the attention of the Ku Klux Klan. One member in particular, RD Pruitt (Matthew Maher), wants a hefty cut of Joe’s action. That Pruitt is the brother-in-law of the law—police Chief Figgis (Chris Cooper)—means that the war between Joe and RD must escalate and drag the film on further. At least this storyline generates one of the best scenes in Live by Night, a tête-à-tête between Joe and Chief Figgis concerning Figgis’ daughter, Loretta (Elle Fanning). As the film spirals off in yet another direction, it includes its other compelling scene, a tête-à-tête between Joe and Loretta, who is blocking Joe’s plans to build a casino.
However, much of Live by Night fails to generate much in the way of suspense or emotion. A long walk Joe has to meet an unhappy Maso, fails to create any tension, and a double-cross that should be shocking induces yawns. The initial relationship between Joe and Emma and the romance between Joe and Graciela hardly generate any passion. What’s more the film’s ending is drawn out with several unnecessary scenes tying up loose ends involving supporting characters.
If Affleck is trying too hard as a director, he is trying way too hard as an actor here. He never seems tough or coolly menacing, even when he plays a trump card to get someone to do what he wants. He elicits a strong performance from Elle Fanning, and nice work from Chris Cooper, but most of his actors, from Sienna Miller and Zoe Saldana to Chris Messina as Joe’s partner in crime, Dion, are miscast. There are also small, unmemorable turns from Brendan Gleeson as Joe’s cop father, and Anthony Michael Hall as a Florida businessman.
At least the film’s cinematography is nicely burnished in the Boston scenes and bright and clear in the Florida ones. The antique cars are nifty, and the suits and hats are natty. But that period detail only goes so far.
Live by Night is unfortunately, dead on arrival.
Live by Night opens today in Philly area theaters.
Author: Gary M. Kramer
Gary M. Kramer is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer. He is the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina. Volumes 1 and 2, and teaches seminars at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute. Follow him on Twitter @garymkramer.