Review: Affleck’s ‘Live by Night’ a soft-boiled tale

Prohibition Era gangster story doesn’t push hard enough but has its charms

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

In the flawed but entertaining Prohibition Era tale “Live By Night,” writer-director-star Ben Affleck gets to check off all the items on his gangster-movie wishlist: tommy guns, sharp suits, villainous vamps.

He also takes on issues of love and faith and the complexities of the American dream. It’s a lot to sort through, and Affleck — adapting Dennis Lehane’s 2012 novel — finds his baby caught between awards-season fodder and a popcorn-audience pleaser. It stiffs as the former, but overlook its weaknesses — including its tonal issues and Affleck’s hero complex — and it gets a pass as the latter.

Affleck plays Joe Coughlin, a decent soul (from Boston, of course) who turns to a life of crime after returning home from World War I. Following a stint behind bars, he finds himself in Tampa, where rum-running from Cuba earns him the opportunity to become a Florida casino magnate. But there are roadblocks in his path, including an extortionist from the KKK (Matthew Maher is a joyously menacing presence), a born-again preacher (Elle Fanning) and crime bosses from his past. Can a guy live?

Affleck’s Coughlin won’t hesitate to shoot a lackey in the head at point-blank range, but he has a strong moral center, which is one of the film’s main problems. Affleck the director is afraid to make Affleck the character a truly dark figure, especially when it comes to his dealings with women, and the film suffers.

It sure looks great — it was lensed by Tarantino regular Robert Richardson — and its gangster-movie tropes are familiar, yet welcome. (Affleck even stages a sufficiently riveting chase scene using old-timey cars.) But it feels like Affleck is afraid to go all the way, and he gets tripped up trying too hard to make his lead a good fella.

agraham@detroitnews.com

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@grahamorama

‘Live by Night’

GRADE: B-

Rated R for strong violence, language throughout, and some sexuality/nudity

Running time: 129 minutes