Okay, now I’m worried about Ben Affleck, the director. You can understand why Warner Brothers might have been excited to put out his latest film, Live by Night. Based on a novel by Dennis Lehane, whom Affleck adapted profitably in his directing debut Gone Baby Gone, this period gangster film seemed like a logical follow-up to his Best Picture Oscar-winning Argo that might make more awards-season noise. Instead, it’s a sign of a promising filmmaking talent who appears to be regressing.
Starting out in the Prohibition Era, the movie stars Affleck as Joe Coughlin, a cop’s son who rebels by joining the Irish mob in Boston. He works his way up until his love for the boss’ wife (Sienna Miller) gets him beaten and left for dead. Bent on revenge, he offers his services to his former friends’ Italian rivals, who send him down to Florida to oversee the syndicate’s bootleg rum operation. In a new setting, Joe gets into a war with the Ku Klux Klan, falls for his Cuban molasses supplier (Zoe Saldana), and comes to grief trying to set up a luxurious new casino for his bosses.
This is a lot of plot, but even if that weren’t true, the movie would still founder on its script, which is by Affleck solo, minus his usual writing partners. You’ll need a pair of hip waders to make your way through the clichés that the actors have to spout: You Can’t Trust Anyone, No One Gets Away Clean, and Live It Up Because There Is No God Anyway. This gets especially thick during the subplot with the police chief’s daughter-turned-heroin addict-turned-revivalist preacher (Elle Fanning), an unfortunate turn into spiritual matters that emerges as so much crap.
The director’s skill at action set pieces is still here, evidenced by a post-bank robbery car chase and a climactic shootout in a Tampa hotel. It’s not enough, though, to counteract the general sameness and narrative torpor that creeps in. Affleck seems to lack a sense of place, too, when he’s not in his beloved Boston. The Florida atmosphere counts for little.
Possibly worst of all, Affleck’s movie-star vanity weighs this picture down. Much as it was in The Town, his character beds all the attractive women here, though thankfully this does not include Fanning. As an actor, Affleck is least interesting when he’s trying to be intimidating, usually coming off as smarmy when he tries. This is no exception. He’s a dull and square-jawed presence at the center of this film, and he crowds out a starry supporting cast that includes Chris Cooper and Brendan Gleeson. The only person who injects any life into this thing is Chris Messina, adding some sorely needed levity as Joe’s cynical, wisecracking right-hand man.
It’s a pity that Affleck dropped out of directing the American remake of Tell No One, which would have played to all his strengths. It’s a greater shame that he abandoned it to play Batman and now direct the next Caped Crusader movie. He once turned around an acting career that was in the deep freeze, but his prospects for doing the same for his directing career now look dim indeed.
Live by Night
Starring Ben Affleck and Zoe Saldana. Written and directed by Ben Affleck, based on Dennis Lehane’s novel. Rated R.