Review: Affleck’s ‘Live by Night’ a soft-boiled tale
Prohibition Era gangster story doesn’t push hard enough but has its charms
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.
‘Live by Night’
Rated R for strong violence, language throughout, and some sexuality/nudity
Running time: 129 minutes