Sometimes a filmmaker can be a victim of their own success. Ben Affleck resurrected his career with a directorial turn stronger than almost any actor before him. Gone Baby Gone earned him the praise he had been denied as an actor, which he then rolled into the solid crime flick The Town and finally, a Best Picture win for political thriller Argo. The natural course after achieving that level of success is to pursue a passion project, and therein lays the pitfall of overindulgence (Martin Scorsese has faced something similar with Silence) and lack of perspective.
Affleck's Live by Night isn't a bad gangster film by any means, it's just overstuffed with egregious flourishes and familiar recalls to just about every mobster movie you've ever seen. At least in the early going, anyway. Affleck does end up correcting course and the film spins into a rousing, entertaining crime yarn full of cool hats, tough dames, and tommy guns. It just takes a while to get there, and the opening act trots out one lousy hard-boiled cliché after another. He plays tough guy Joe Coughlin, a Boston criminal and WWI vet on the opposite side of the law as his father Tom (Brendan Gleeson), a police captain and respected member of the community. It's Joe's time on the battlefield that has shaped his outlook, vowing to live as anti-establishment life as possible. "I left a soldier, I came home an outlaw", he says in bland, tired voice-over. The early scenes are full of such lazy exposition, as Joe's reckless criminal activities, which include a romantic alliance with another gangster's girl (Sienna Miller, not given much to do), force him out of Boston and down to Miami to start over.
In Florida the film gets a much needed kick in the pants. Penned by Affleck as an adaptation of Dennis Lehane's novel, the story is suddenly full of kooky religious fundamentalists and Ku Klux Klan members, not the typical foes for the Mob. Joe, along with his right-hand-man (Chris Messina, always reliable even in a thick Boston accent) take control of the bootlegging trade through fear and violence, tricks that worked fine up north. But to hold on to that grip, it'll take a lot more than that. If the local sheriff (Chris Cooper, excellent as always) is giving you trouble, make an example out of his young daughter (Elle Fanning) who has fallen in a seedy crowd of pornographers. There's unexpected gravity to her story when she re-emerges as a religious zealot, championing a cause opposed to Joe's operation. While she presents herself as a pillar of strength, the conversations she has with Joe reveal something broken. She may question the strength of his virtue but hers is in question, too, and it plays out in expectedly tragic results.
In Fanning's character we see a reflection of the transformation also going on within Joe. It plays out in broad strokes like so much of this movie does, but in general he's a crook with a heart of gold. Been there, seen that. You keep hoping to see something deeper than that brought to the table, but instead we are forced to like Joe as opposed to his rivals, all KKK members. Well that's a relatively easy choice. For pure entertainment value it's hard to beat mobsters vs. racists in white sheets, just sayin'. There are long meandering stretches between encounters in which little of consequence happens, and unfortunately that is where you'll find many of the film's great supporting cast. For instance, Zoe Saldana is perfectly fine and has some decent heat with Affleck in the scenes they share, but if her character was dropped completely it would have zero effect on the story. Affleck is solid but he seems out of his element, like he's teleported his contemporary criminal from The Town back in time and given him the same story arc to follow.
There just isn't much new that Affleck's Live by Night has to say about the gangster picture. Perhaps we are attributing loftier expectations than he had for the film, but that's the price he must pay for previous achievements.
Rating: 3 out of 5