Ben Affleck returns to the work of Dennis Lehane by adapting Live By Night, one third of a period trilogy within the author's wider, masterful collection of flinty Boston-noir tomes that has given rise to the likes of Shutter Island, Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone.
The latter was the basis of Affleck's directorial debut, setting the stage for two further efforts – both featuring himself in the lead role – with the Oscar-winning Argo and The Town, a terrifically muscular heist drama mining much from the Beantown milieu so familiar to fans of Lehane's work.
A sleeker beast than The Given Day, its mammoth literary prequel, Live By Night centres on the adventures of Affleck's Boston outlaw Joe Coughlin (a child in the aforementioned first novel). Coughlin is a relatively low-level thief – though he springs from an ostensibly respectable family and boasts the sheen of a Catholic education – who, as is the way of these tales, falls for the wrong girl (Sienna Miller) and then, of course, ends up on the bad side of her crime boss lover, Albert White (Robert Glenister).
Finding himself in prison, Coughlin vows revenge and upon his release entreats Remo Girone's mafia don, Maso Pescatore, to back him in his bid for retribution against White. Coughlin is swiftly dispatched to fortify Pescatore's rum operation in prohibition-era Florida, next to old stickup partner Dion Bartolo (Chris Messina on crackling form), and quickly establishes himself as a giant in the South's criminal underworld.
Or so he says. As passable as Live By Night is in many respects, the film makes the fatal decision to tell and not do. Affleck's flat Boston twang narrates events by way of exposition, overlaying significant periods of time that are barely explored or depicted solely via brief montages. In just over two hours, the director covers the better part of a decade; it feels like barely ten minutes.
While the question of Coughlin's innate goodness constitutes a major strand of the narrative, the violence of his occupation – referenced in the occasionally earnest dialogue more than once – seems abstract. When it does flare up, such as during the closing hotel-set firefight, the savagery would appear almost casual and, strangely for a picture aiming itself firmly at the gangster genre's heart, out of place. It is almost as if Affleck has committed to making so lovely a piece of cinema (this is, undoubtedly, a beautifully rendered, assuredly acted film) that the darker elements have been neglected.
Consequently, a host of themes end up competing for time: faith and family (personified by Elle Fanning and Chris Cooper's tortured zealots), race and prejudice, vengeance and murder, corruption and criminality. Each rears its head as the overarching message; all fail to emerge victorious. In concert, the effect is a somewhat untidy lack of focus. The movie could be compelling, though it is ultimately distracted by its own diverging ambitions.
Affleck has not produced an utter disaster by any means and there are enough flourishes to impress – an early car chase involving roaring Model Ts and coppers wielding tommy guns registers as particularly excellent. His nod to the multi-ethnic composition of 1920s Tampa is also interesting and Coughlin's Celtic outsider is often cast as the exotic flower in the garden.
Nevertheless, a finale that accomplishes the rare feat of rushing and crawling to its conclusion is clumsily handled, carrying the weariness of a party that really wants to end.