Ben Affleck debuted as a director with his well-received 2007 adaptation of a Dennis Lehane novel, Gone Baby Gone, and he returns to Lehane again in his fourth film behind the camera. But before a foot of film was ever shot on Live by Night, Affleck had already made a decision that would be the film’s undoing. He cast himself as the lead.
Drawn again to a story about living outside of the law, Affleck – as a writer/director – has proven he’s genuinely interested in moral complexity and casting a critical eye on clannish communities. But the material may be too much for him here, too challenging to condense, which could explain the ponderous voiceover narration, clumsy dramatic pacing, and a promising thematic rebuke of current anti-immigrant sentiment that never quite crystallizes. Live by Night is Affleck’s most ambitious picture, certainly, a period piece that charts a reluctant gangster’s rise from stick-up man in Prohibition-era Boston to a rum-runner and unofficial mayor of Tampa, Fla. Joe Coughlin (Affleck) is the son of a police captain (Gleason) but a tour “fighting the Huns” in World War I leeched any enthusiasm Joe had for respecting authority. For a while he manages to avoid Boston’s turf wars, until he gets caught romancing the girlfriend (Miller) of a top mobster. Joe, a small-town Irish hood, agrees to the protection offered by an Italian crime boss named Maso Pescatore (Girone) in exchange for running Pescatore’s bootlegging operations along the Florida coast.
The film unclenches with the production move southward – nothing like a little sun to loosen the limbs and nudge the first-rate supporting cast to embrace their inner weird. That cast includes Chris Messina as Joe’s stogie-chomping right-hand man; Matthew Maher as a deranged guerrilla warrior for the KKK; Chris Cooper as a sheriff at peace with the corruption in his backyard because he’s confident in his own incorruptibility; and Elle Fanning, devastating in a few scenes as a revival-tent preacher. They all deserve special commendation considering when they share scenes with Affleck, they might as well be dialoguing with a green-screen. Already an actor of limited range, Affleck’s face is stuck on an expression somewhere between quizzical and constipated; his immobilized performance actively repels emotional investment in the character. And what a shame. Squint and you can just catch a trace of what a terrific movie this could have been.
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