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.