Ben Affleck’s directorial efforts have erred toward excessive tidiness, hitting their dramatic beats with personality-free, script-by-numbers functionality. In theory, that should make the surprisingly antic energy of Live by Night feel refreshing. Made in Affleck’s off-season from his recent commitment to the DC universe, the film lacks the mannered, overthought structure of his other work. In its place, though, is incoherence, as Live by Night is cobbled together with every shopworn standard of the gangster genre.
The film’s first act moves by in a blur, introducing Joe Coughlin (Affleck) in a fit of clichés that include but aren’t limited to: robbing a mafia poker den with the requisite “Do you have any idea whose game this is?” outburst from an irritated player; internal and external monologues about not wanting to get mixed up in organized crime; and promptly getting mixed up in it anyway. Recruited by Irish kingpin Albert White (Robert Glenister, rocking a set of Toni Erdmann-worthy fake choppers), Joe performs wet work around town but is seen mostly bedding his boss’s dame, Emma (Sienna Miller), and worrying about running afoul of either Albert or his own father, Thomas Coughlin (Brendan Gleeson), the deputy superintendent of the Boston police. Instead of teasing audiences with the discovery of Joe and Emma’s relationship, the film is already at a catastrophic fever pitch 30 minutes in, with Joe battered, briefly imprisoned, and eager for revenge against his employer.
Live by Night’s action soon relocates to Ybor City in Tampa, Florida, as Joe takes up the rum trade for the Italian mob to cut into Albert’s business operations. Here the film shifts gears to establish Joe as an equal-opportunity capo, bucking the racism endemic to mobsters by ingratiating himself into a predominately Latino community and starting a loving relationship with his molasses supplier’s sister, Graciela (Zoe Saldana). In fact, Joe’s greatest threat in Florida comes not from Albert’s gang, but the Ku Klux Klan itself. Coupled with Joe’s occasional speeches about the political ramifications of Prohibition, including a baffling moment where he explains to a KKK member how the 18th Amendment contributed to the Great Depression, Live by Night adds a new wrinkle to the well-traveled terrain of the mafia film: the woke gangster.
Adapted from the Dennis Lehane novel of the same name, Live by Night embodies the author’s love of insipid twists and penchant for overloaded subplots. As ever, Affleck marshals fine performances from terrific actors, but the film splits time between so many characters that audiences only catch glimpses of their personalities. Chris Cooper stars as a Tampa sheriff who juggles his religious fundamentalism with a pragmatic view of the loose peace that organized crime can bring, and Elle Fanning plays his corrupted daughter, Loretta, who undergoes several spiritual upheavals and emerges an evangelical carnival attraction. Both of these performances are ultimately reduced to a series of signifiers, but then that’s true of Joe as well.
Affleck was once one of the most endearingly self-effacing actors in the film industry, but in Live by Night he appears drained of all life, dully reciting his lines as if he had taken on this project solely as a contractual obligation. Only once, when Joe’s best friend, Dion Bartolo (Chris Messina), accidentally shoots him during an ambush and Joe responds with irritation, does Affleck display any amount of charisma, momentarily breaking from his character’s hollowness to embody a flesh-and-blood human being.
The film gradually builds to a climactic shootout predicated on a weak twist, though at least the action is capably shot and structured, albeit featuring a Scooby Doo-grade moment of absurdity that sees Joe ducking into a room to avoid gunfire and immediately popping back out into a hallway behind his assailants. But there’s nothing at the center of Live by Night, no foundation of drama to ground the convoluted mashup of so many genre tropes.
The gangster has always been symbolic of some aspect of America, be it the ambition to realize the immigrant’s dream of assimilation to grotesque scale or merely the desire of the underclass to climb the wealth ladder with nothing more than their hard-knock knowledge. Joe doesn’t really stand for anything, despite the modernity he frequently betrays in his observations on the economic realities of the mob. He’s a blank slate with thin motivation, and his lack of urgency only speeds the unspooling of the film’s scattered narrative.