Adapted from the 2012 novel by Dennis Lehane, Live By Night is a great American epic wrapped inside a misguided movie. Written for the screen, produced and directed by Ben Affleck, who also stars, Live by Night starts overseas in the trenches of World War I, where Joe Coughlin (Affleck) makes up his mind to never again take orders from anyone. But it doesn’t take long for Coughlin, a two-bit Boston bank robber, to learn never-say-never and he finds himself working for Albert White (Robert Glenister), an Irish gangster he eventually betrays, and then Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone), the Italian mobster who ships him off to Florida where Coughlin will oversee Pescatore’s rum running business in the multi-cultural melting pot of Ybor City, a suburb of Tampa.
This change of location and loyalties is not exactly simple and Affleck the director fails to handle it with any urgency or acumen. Though Live By Night is set mainly in the hot humid climate of Florida, it takes far too long to arrive there. When it does, the story explodes in all directions, from race relations to born-again Christianity; from the Ku Klux Klan to gambling; from rum running to family; and from corrupt government officials to meditations on where heaven is in the sky. Affleck tries to set up each simultaneously and loses each thread in the process. This is further exasperated by the lackluster performance from Affleck — who, frankly, looks lost most of the time — and his co-stars: girlfriend cum wife, Graciela (Zoe Saldana), Tampa Chief of Police Figgis (Chris Cooper) and partner in crime Dion Bartolo (Chris Messina). The only performances with any spark to them belong to RD Pruitt (Matthew Maher), Figgis’s idiot nephew and fervent Klan member, and Loretta Figgis (Elle Fanning), the chief’s daughter.
Live By Night feels like it started as a routine genre picture about muscle men and the guns they carry but decided to take a day trip into American history along the way. What starts as local crime carried over from the old country into the corrupt streets of America before moving south to go legitimate in the Florida sun echoes the path of The Godfather Parts I & II, but what was a great American epic for Francis Ford Coppola feels like a strain for Affleck.
That strain is further compounded by the inclusion of the Klan and the indignation Coughlin feels for his bride and the people working for him. Affleck the director allows Affleck the actor to stand on this side of righteousness, but he does not allow his co-stars the same privilege. Instead, they are reduced to stereotypes. Not by design, but by a lack of imagination.