Joseph Coughlin (Ben Affleck), the son of a powerful Boston police officer (Brendan Gleeson), returns from World War I disillusioned and becomes a stickup artist. He is reluctantly drawn into a mob war between Albert White (Robert Glenister) and Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone) despite insisting that he is an outlaw, not a gangster. Following a doomed affair with White’s girlfriend Emma Gould (Sienna Miller), Coughlin agrees to head up Pescatore’s bootlegging operation in Tampa alongside friend Dion Bartolo (Chris Messina). It isn’t long before they establish a power base and Joe falls in love with Graciela (Zoe Saldana), the charitable sister of his Cuban importer. While Joe dreams of a casino and a position of comfortable security, disapproving locals, a still-vengeful Albert, and an increasingly demanding Maso all threaten to undo his success.
Ben Affleck’s ascendance as a director began a decade ago with another Dennis Lehane adaptation, Gone Baby Gone, so having him bring to screen another work by his fellow Bostonian seemed a no-brainer. Unfortunately, Live by Night seems a bit too content to coast on its pedigree. Though not a flop, it is also, given the talent involved, not all that it could have been.
As a director, Affleck maintains a sharp eye for detail. Tommy guns, fedoras, and sleek roadsters exude period-appropriate style while the Georgia coast fills in admirably for the Florida one. These sunny scenes contrast nicely with the urban grit of the film’s Boston-based beginning. All told, aesthetically, Live by Night does not disappoint.
The acting isn’t quite up to the same standard across the board, but there is no shortage of experienced hands here. Though a bit too old for his role, Affleck convincingly gets across Joe’s pragmatism and conviction that he can simultaneously be a criminal and a decent person (hence the sleep by day/live by night metaphor of the title). However, in their scenes together, he is clearly upstaged by Elle Fanning as the Tampa police chief’s drug addict-turned-evangelist daughter, a would-be antagonist that Fanning plays quite sympathetically. Saldana and Messina make the most of their underwritten roles, and Glenister makes Albert quite a loathsome thug. On the other hand, the miscast Miller’s Irish accent is distractingly inconsistent, especially compared to the authentic one sported by Gleeson (who is rock-solid as the stern, disapproving patriarch). Affleck, wisely, sticks to a standard Boston accent rather than affect a sure-to-be embarrassing attempt at a brogue.
Ironically, given Affleck’s screenwriting Oscar and Lehane’s Edgar awards, the writing may be the weakest element here. While the film and the book on which it was based both explore the nature of spiritual as well as financial and political corruption and provide Joe with an arc, there is quite a bit here that is formulaic or rushed. Live by Night is actually the second book in a trilogy, and had its predecessor, The Given Day, been filmed first, Joe’s disdain for authority and turn to crime would be better understood in context. Even without the added background, this film could have certainly done more to build its relationships. Joe and Graciela, a Boston crook and an Afro-Cuban-Floridian philanthropist, seem to fall a little too easily for one another, and that’s still more that can be said for how Joe (“lace curtain Irish”) and Emma (“shanty Irish”) end up together. Add to this some moments of canned sentimentality, and Live by Night loses some luster.
Were it brought to life by anyone else, Live by Night would be a perfectly serviceable gangster yarn, but as an Affleck film, it comes as a letdown. A longstanding element of comic book lore is that being Batman has caused Bruce Wayne’s social life and business dealings to suffer at times. Perhaps playing Batman (in the upcoming Justice League and a solo film) has taken a similar toll on Affleck.