Doug Reviews: Live by Night (2016)

Ben Affleck’s first directorial effort since 2012’s Argo is Live by Night, an adaptation of the Dennis Lehane novel of the same name. Does it measure up to his previous films?

The short answer is, no. Affleck, who also wrote the screenplay, stars as Joe Coughlin, the son of a Boston police captain (Brendan Gleeson) in the 1920s. Joe decides to go a different way with his life and becomes a gangster. In the course of his criminal activities, he falls in love with the wrong woman, Emma (Sienna Miller), and runs afoul of her kingpin boyfriend, Albert White (Robert Glenister). When Joe gets out of jail, he goes to work for White’s rival and goes down to Florida to run a bootlegging operation. He falls in love again, this time with Graciela (Zoe Saldana), and becomes very successful running his own crew. However, his operation draws the unwanted attention of the Ku Klux Klan as well as a religious zealot (Elle Fanning). Both threaten Joe’s plan to build a casino and go legit and despite the protestations of the local police chief (Chris Cooper), Joe knows that violence is the only answer.

So, if that basic plot summary doesn’t seem convoluted enough, I left out the part where the police chief is the zealot’s father and the main Klansman giving Joe problems is his brother-in-law (Matthew Maher). Also, Albert White is still kicking around and is in Florida as well. That’s a lot of plot for a two-hour film and the running time just isn’t enough to handle this crime epic. The screenplay is also kind of all over the place and never really finds its focus. This is, again, one of those films that may have worked better as a television miniseries. There are just too many competing interests in the story and the main through line—Joe’s rivalry with White—is almost an afterthought once he gets out of prison and is largely forgotten for the bulk of the film’s second half. It is just one of Affleck’s weaker efforts, which is a shame since he’s been on an upward trajectory since he started directing.

The cast is topnotch, but sadly, the weak link is Affleck. He never seems comfortable in the role and his chemistry with Saldana isn’t really there—which probably explains why the love story isn’t all that developed. Chris Messina is great as Joe’s right hand man, Dion. He steals a lot of his scenes.

Ultimately, you can skip Live by Night. It is definitely the weakest of the films Affleck has directed, though it has its moments. There are some nice action sequences and great cinematography from Robert Richardson, but the center never holds together and the whole affair feels very scattershot. Catch it on cable someday.

 

Rating: C

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