As a filmmaker, Ben Affleck trades in thrillers that aspire for more than the constraints of the genre. His best film, Gone Baby Gone, achieves those heights with clever twists and a perfectly articulated moral quagmire (it also helps that it’s the only film where he does not appear onscreen). Argo is a handsomely mounted prestige thriller, one that plays into the Academy’s biases, since it is literally about Hollywood saving the hostages. Affleck’s latest is Live by Night, a violent gangster film that lays the moralizing on a little too thick. Like an overeager chef, he stuffs us with portentous metaphor and dialogue long after we’re full.
Live by Night is another adaptation of a Dennis Lehane novel, who wrote the source material for everything from Mystic River to the aforementioned Gone Baby Gone. Instead of a Boston-area murder mystery, Lehane and Affleck focus on Joe Coughlin, an ex-con in the 1920s would rather perform heists than be beholden to any boss. Affleck plays Coughlin with a stoic, unwavering moral code that serves him well in Boston, which is plagued by an ongoing conflict between the Irish and Italian mob. Coughlin pisses off the Irish kingpin, who murders his girl, and so he swears revenge. His method violates his code: he takes up with the Italian gangster, leading his rum operation in Tampa. Every step in his blossoming criminal enterprise is meant to needle his enemy, but things get complicated when Prohibition nears its end and the KKK want a cut of his business.
The Boston scenes of Live by Night are long and perfunctory. They are a means to give Coughlin motivation, and to escape Massachusetts for Florida. Affleck relaxes a little in Tampa, so his characters room to breathe. His supporting cast has plenty of welcoming faces: Zoe Saldana is Graciela, a Cuban-American who becomes Coughlin’s lover, while Chris Messina plays against type as Dion Bartolo, Coughlin’s right hand man. Throughout the film, Affleck has unearned affection for his hero’s distorted worldview. Things worked so much better, Live by Night argues, when booze was illegal and Americans could work freely with criminals of shapes, creeds, and colors. Coughlin is the sort of admirable, decent criminal that’s an utter fiction, and Affleck redeems him every chance he can get. That would be fine, except Live by Night adds dialogue and voice-over that aches for depth that it never quite finds.
The best moments of Live by Night is when Affleck owns his genre roots. There are bloody shoot-outs, and Affleck films them with a zeal for action. There are also quieter moments, too, like when Coughlin deigns that Loretta Figgis (Elle Fanning) is off limits, even if she mounts a moral crusade against vice in Florida. The tableau of Florida is also striking, with shots of moody sunsets and oversized suits cutting through the shadow. Still, Affleck undermines his own film with maudlin moments that suggest a pervasive distrust for his audience. A tighter, tougher genre film could achieve the same ends. Instead we have to deal with a ridiculous voiceover about how Coughlin, realizing the error of his ways, decides to abandon his empire in favor of running an orphanage. This is a classic example of telling, rather than showing, and Live by Night is so afraid of losing its depth that it ironically squanders its potential to have any.