Ben Affleck’s adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s 2012 novel “Live by Night” is apparently getting savaged by the coastal press. “Makes ‘Black Mass’ look like ‘The Godfather’” is a quote that my colleague Jason repeated (but the source of said insult won’t be credited here). To be fair, the final 10 minutes are kind of awful (though faithful to the source material), but everything that comes before it is handled competently enough that putting it beneath “Black Mass” feels like the kind of thing an angry lover says. “You’re dumping me? Well, you’re nowhere near as good as ‘Black Mass’!” “You take that back!” “Never!” Silly, silly, silly.
As Ben Affleck directorial efforts go, though, “Live by Night” is easily his weakest. It’s stylish but a bit too familiar, lacking the intensity of Affleck’s best work. It doesn’t help matters that it’s a Prohibition-era film that takes place mostly in Florida, inviting comparisons to “The Untouchables” and “Scarface” whether Affleck wants them or not.
Joe Coughlin (Affleck), a Boston-bred, disillusioned soldier from the Great War and son of a proud Irish police captain (Brendan Gleeson), is a petty thief who runs under the protection of a local crime boss but doesn’t think of himself as a gangster. He draws the ire of his boss’ rival when he is caught having an affair with the rival’s mistress Emma (Sienna Miller), so when Joe is popped in a bank robbery, he and his father seek the protection of Italian boss Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone) to make sure Joe isn’t killed while in jail. Upon his release, Joe agrees to work as Maso’s point man in Tampa, overseeing the rum shipments. He encounters a whole new set of problems (racism of a different stripe, mainly), but does a great job expanding the Pescatore business down south. And for his efforts, he is still treated like a second-class citizen, because he’s the son of an Irish man working for Italians.
There are a myriad of subplots involving Emma, the Tampa police chief’s daughter Loretta (Elle Fanning) and Joe’s Tampa love interest, Cuban activist Gabriela (Zoe Saldana), and if any of those ‘B’ stories had connected on an emotional level, this would be a completely different movie. This is not a commentary on the actresses’ performances; it’s just that their story lines are a bit too easy, a convenient obstacle in order to establish Joe’s super-awesome ruthlessness as the reluctant crime boss. Indeed, the entire film seems to be one obstacle after another that Joe has to overcome. He hardly has a second to breathe or think.
The film is impeccably designed though, both sets and costumes, and the rapport between Affleck and Chris Messina, who plays Joe’s longtime, literal partner in crime Dion Bartolo, is superb. Their scene with a low-level Florida crime lackey has a brutally funny ending, and the scene where Joe gets his ass kicked by the Boston rival’s goons will make every man in the theater wince.
The ending, though, is death, sucking all of the air out of the room. It is a collection of bits from other, better crime films (and even a scene from a better known but vastly inferior one), ending with some treacly narration. The audience is clearly meant to feel both happy and sad for Joe but is more likely to feel nothing. This is unfortunate, because his character deserved better than that up until that point.
Ben Affleck made his name as a director by adapting one of Dennis Lehane’s books (“Gone Baby Gone”), so it makes sense that he would want to take a shot at another one, but it does not appear that “Live by Night” had Affleck’s undivided attention as a writer or director. It’s been nine years between the two films; perhaps it’s time that Affleck finds a new, age-appropriate muse.