For once, “Live by Night” had me wishing the characters would shut up so that something could explode. Affleck has an undeniable knack for filming commotion. There’s a car chase and shoot-out in this film that can stand with the best of them—hell, a guy pushes another guy over a railing, then fires an entire clip into him as he falls. It’s the only time this film feels alive, day or night.
Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck) shares a past with many anti-heroes of the Roaring Twenties: upon returning from a senseless war, he finds employment in the most high-paying job that fits his unique skill-set. This, of course, is organized crime, which has flourished in recent years, thanks to prohibition. Despite being of Irish descent, Coughlin hooks up with the Italian mob, who send him down to Tampa in order to oversee their growing rum operation. Complications arise, in the form of the KKK, an ex-junkie preacher and ghosts from the past.
Affleck’s most glaring mistake is casting himself in the lead role. His performance is consistently flat, which becomes painfully noticeable when he’s face-to-face with the film’s slew of accomplished character actors, especially Sienna Miller as a self-reliant Irishwoman. Narration informs us that his character is an anti-authoritarian romantic, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at him. Come to think of it, you wouldn’t know anything by looking at him. He could sit down in a chair and give you his life story, and you’d think, “wow, a talking chair!”
Anytime a film is adapted from a novel, abridgment is necessary. But instead of diving deep into one portion of the story, Affleck makes the decision to tackle a series of rotating plot lines. This spreads the film thin across multiple vignettes, none of which can find their footing before being shoved aside for the next one. And as the film comes to a close, it scrambles to tie up all its story threads, which results in the dreaded “multiple endings” affliction.
This being a heavily funded Hollywood production set in the ’20s, it looks good. Even when the film is at its most sluggish, there’s usually some eye candy to chew on, the most memorable being a steady, over-the-shoulder entrance into a tent revival with some inventive signage. Unfortunately, flavorful period detail is hardly enough to warrant over two hours of a flavorless narrative.
With his past three films, Affleck has proven himself to be a talented director. I guess that technically makes “Live by Night” a misfire and not a bad movie, if we’re going by the unwritten rules of commercial art. But, this is a gangster film we’re talking about, so forget the rules. This a bad movie.
2 out of 5 stars