Live by Night is a dense and disorganized movie adaptation in which Ben Affleck covers too much ground for any one story or character to succeed.
Early in 1920s prohibition, World War I veteran Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck) turns to a life of crime, robbing banks and local cronies for enough cash to avoid the grind of an honest day's work. The son of a police captain, Coughlin manages to run his small-time operation without catching the attention of notorious gangsters Albert White (Robert Glenister) and Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone), who are locked in a bitter and violent battle for control over Boston's rum trade, until Coughlin is betrayed by his lover (White's mistress), Emma Gould (Sienna Miller).
Forced to make a fresh start, and seeking revenge against White, Coughlin pledges his allegiance to the Pescatore family and heads to Ybor City to aid his new employers, along with his former partner, Dion Bartolo (Chris Messina), in pushing White out of the burgeoning Tampa Bay rum market. To secure his interests in Tampa, Coughlin forges partnerships with local criminals, merchants, and government officials - including Cuban molasses importer Graciella Corrales (Zoe Saldana) as well as the Sheriff of Tampa (Chris Cooper). Nevertheless, as Pescatore's interests in Tampa grow, and the surrounding world stumbles into the Great Depression, Coughlin is forced to consider the kind of man he must become in order to keep his ruthless employers appeased and his loved ones safe from harm.
Directed and written by Ben Affleck, Live by Night was adapted from the 2012 Dennis Lehane novel of the same name - adding to an impressive filmography based on Lehane novels. Affleck's sensibilities as a screenwriter and director, combined with Lehane's knack for crafting adaptable source materials (proven rife for Hollywood successes: see Gone, Baby, Gone, Mystic River, and Shutter Island, among others) should be a recipe for success. Unfortunately, Live by Night is a dense and disorganized movie adaptation in which Ben Affleck covers too much ground for any one story or character to succeed. Despite opulent period settings and intriguing character sketches on which to build, Affleck simply falls short in developing nuanced opportunities for drama (nor historical reflection); instead, Live by Night is beautiful clutter, punctuated by fleeting glimpses of inspired filmmaking, overshadowed by a recognizable story of power, corruption, love, and the potential for redemption.
It's an ambitious endeavor, tethering one historical stage to another, including post-World War I poverty, racial tension in 1920s Florida, and the repercussions of prohibition, among others, in a single narrative - all while juggling thematic through lines that attempt to explore how freedom, self-determination, religion, and karma all shape the world. It's not that any one aspect of Live by Night is severely lacking or poorly conceived, Affleck includes genuinely sharp lines of dialogue, powerful character moments, quality performances, and intriguing set pieces; still, in the director's effort to adapt every significant piece of Lehane's novel, very few of the film's strong points are afforded enough screen time to flourish. As soon as a character begins to shine or a storyline takes shape, they disappear or are abandoned - and Affleck moves on to the next plot beat.
The director covers a lot of story material (settings, characters, and socio-political events) in the film's 129 minute runtime but Live by Night plays as a jumbled series of novellas or a cliff-noted version of Lehane's book (albeit one that also applies significant changes and omissions). Coughlin narrates the film from start to finish, and Affleck saturates Live by Night with a significant amount of expository dialogue, ensuring that Coughlin's various circumstances and decisions are clear to the audience; yet, without enough attention to the smaller, intimate details of his life, moviegoers only get to see the broad strokes of what happens to the man - without a particularly unique or sincere understanding of Coughlin's (grey) morality nor what that morality says about life (in the 1920s, 1930s, or now).
Affleck's turn as Joe Coughlin is representative of overarching shortcomings in the larger film, that is to say: serviceable but vastly underdeveloped. The lead role doesn't test Affleck in any significant way and the actor's performance (both in character and execution) is surprisingly flat - especially when compared to his recent critical successes (read: The Town, Argo, etc). Coughlin is a fertile foundation but Affleck populates his Live by Night persona with mob movie cliches and, conversely, very little to differentiate the character or the performance from numerous films that have done gangster drama before - and better.
Without a compelling and distinct protagonist, Live by Night needed a colorful cast of supporting characters to add texture and bridge the gap between the film's rich period settings and otherwise familiar narrative; still, few are developed and, like Coughlin, most (including those portrayed by Chris Cooper, Robert Glenister, Remo Girone, Brendan Gleeson, and Sienna Miller) are defined by conversation or plot rather than a fresh perspective. Elle Fanning (The Neon Demon) portrays the film's most compelling addition, Loretta Figgis, and the only person in Live by Night who is supplied a genuinely memorable scene to steal. Meanwhile, Chris Messina (The Mindy Project) brings much-needed levity as Coughlin's partner, Dion Bartolo, but the character is, more than anyone else in the film, victim to Live by Night's consistently shifting tone. Scene to scene, Bartolo is depicted as a ruthless mobster, then a jovial best friend. The juxtaposition could work, if Live by Night allowed audiences to understand Bartolo as a unique character; instead, he's whatever the movie needs him to be at that specific moment.
Drastic tonal shifts are common throughout Live by Night - symptomatic of Affleck's effort to pack everything he wanted (rather than restricting himself to what was essential) into his adaptation. As a series of beautiful scenes, believable performances, or thematic through lines, it's understandable why the filmmaker included what he did; just the same, Affleck serves up so many different flavors in one meal, it becomes difficult to see and appreciate what the filmmaker believed was most important.
Live by Night is a lavish but indulgent movie - one that, with a bit more restraint and a narrowed focus, could have achieved a superior big screen adaptation of Lehane's novel. An intriguing backdrop, beautiful cinematography, shrewd artistic flourishes, and A-list performers are all dulled by a glut of thin characters and storylines - all of which, together, fall short in providing an exciting or insightful resolution to Coughlin's journey. In the end, Affleck's Live by Night adaptation isn't a bad movie but, given the actor/writer/director/producer's talent and track record, it's certainly a disappointment - and one of the weakest entries in Affleck's post-comeback filmography.