‘Live By Night’ Review: Ben Affleck Versus the Gangsters of Tampa
Joe Coughlin should have listened to his dad. Joe (Ben Affleck) was a gangster (although he preferred the term “outlaw”); his father Thomas (Brendan Gleeson) was a cop in their hometown of Boston. Over dinner one night, Thomas warns Joe: “What you put out into the world always comes back to you.” “But,” he adds, “not how you expect.”
The movie that follows, Live by Night, takes Joe from Boston to Tampa in the post-WWI era, where he rises through the ranks of the mafia and becomes a local kingpin. And each decision he makes, each action he chooses to take, has serious repercussions, although rarely the ones Joe anticipates. As the screenwriter and director of Live by Night, Affleck has made a rambling, long-winded argument on behalf of Thomas’ theory. It proves the old policeman’s point, sometimes to its own detriment as a piece of entertainment.
The scenario comes from a crime novel by Dennis Lehane, who also wrote the source material for Affleck’s directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone. That book provided Affleck with a compact narrative to weave into a solid little neo-noir detective story. Live by Night works on a much larger scale — one that Affleck struggles to constrain to a 130-minute runtime. Some sequences seem heavily condensed, like Joe’s early days in Boston and his doomed affair with the girlfriend of another gangster, played by Sienna Miller. This romance has an enormous impact on Joe’s life, or so Joe tells the audience in his voiceover narration, but what we see of it onscreen doesn’t amount to much because Affleck doesn’t have enough time to let it amount to much. When Joe arrives in Florida, he stumbles into several interesting episodes, including a war with the local branch of the Ku Klux Klan and an altercation with a young woman who becomes a revival preacher, played by Elle Fanning. The key word is episodes, as the movie wanders from one incident and set of characters to the next.
Again, that very much jives with the movie’s themes, and when Affleck ties them all together in a final coda, the payoff justifies some of the proceeding journey. But there are moments when Live by Night feels like an HBO miniseries that’s been cut down to feature length, or maybe an adaptation of a novel’s CliffsNotes, rather than of the novel itself. All of the plot points are here, but the details and connective tissue that would give those plot points their emotional weight appear to have been left on the cutting room floor. A case could be made that a runtime just over two hours is the worst possible length for this material; a shorter cut could have been made from just one or two of the subplots (like, say, Joe’s attempt to get a casino built in Tampa), or all of them could have been given the full time they needed in an actual TV series.
That said, what is here, messy as it is, often works. The glossy, old school Hollywood vibe is impressive, as are the costumes, props, and sets. The cinematography is by Robert Richardson, who shot The Aviator, Hugo, and Django Unchained among other films, and always delivers in movies with period settings. Live by Night is consistently a pleasure to look at. (The presence of actors like Affleck, Miller, and Zoe Saldana as Joe’s second love interest certainly helps in that regard as well.)
Affleck the director doesn’t always make great use of Affleck the actor. He’s at his best onscreen when listening to others; when we can study his face as he reacts to the situation around him. The most memorable scene in Live by Night, by no coincidence, is one where Fanning’s Loretta meets Joe in a diner and the two talk — but mostly she talks and he listens. Affleck communicates more in stillness than in action, but most of Live by Night follows him running all over Florida, explaining all the character motivations and backstories in a gravelly voiceover that occasionally verges on Sad Affleck self-parody.
Live by Night is a very mixed bag: Earnest, handsome, even passionate — and also slow, digressive, and a little bland. For all its classy production values, at a certain point the question must be asked: What does Live by Night add to the prolific history of the gangster genre? And then the question must be answered honestly: Not a whole heck of a lot.