Ben Affleck’s gangster film opens with a photo montage in which we learn why protagonist Joe Coughlin is who he is. Joe fought in the Great War, saw men die for no reason, and vowed never again to let another man tell him what to do. And that’s all the character development we get. Live by Night is a film which lays its foundations, and then fails to build anything on them. It also commits the most heinous of cinema’s cardinal sins: it is interminably dull.
After returning from the War, Joe becomes a fedora’d bandit in 1920s Boston, robbing from the Irish and Italian mobs who rule the city. He is approached by Albert White (Robert Glenister) and asked to join his operation, but Joe refuses. Probably because Joe is sleeping with White’s girlfriend Emma (Sienna Miller). Pretty soon, though, Joe finds himself betrayed by Emma, beaten, and sent to prison for a botched bank robbery. On release, he joins the Italian mob for a chance to get revenge on White.
The Italian mob sends Joe to Florida to run their rum smuggling operation (Prohibition is still in full swing). Joe has deal with a number of threats, among them a temperance movement and the Ku Klux Klan. There is no intrigue to any of these threats. They queue up in an orderly fashion, are dealt with one by one, and sent on their way. The film never mentions any of them again. Even White, the de facto villain of the piece, doesn’t rear his head again until the climax.
There are a handful of times when we can see that Affleck is trying to say something about the nature of America; about how what America was then is how America still is now. But these ideas never survive beyond their vague conception. All we really see of the Klan is a few be-sheeted Klansmen burning a crucifix outside a Cuban watering hole; other than that, some nasty people say some nasty words and then it’s business as usual. Affleck’s Joe himself gives a speech, a mini-monologue about the Establishment oppressing immigrants despite their instrumental role in the building of America. And it’s over before it has a chance to get going.
The only bright spots in these dreary attempts to say Something Meaningful are RD Pruitt, Matthew Maher’s creepy Klansman, and Elle Fanning as an ex-junkie preacher with the temperance society. Pruitt is a lisping lunatic, whose first scene, in which he careens wildly between good natured joking and serial killer menacing in the blink of an eye, is the most fun you’ll have with Live by Night. And fleeting fun it is, as Pruitt turns up in only a tiny handful of scenes. Fanning, meanwhile, plays Loretta as an ecclesiastical showman, finding the theatricality in faith; part of her show involves displaying her track marks to the horrified congregation. There is still a little girl in there, though, and Fanning allows us glimpses of that little girl’s confusion and vulnerability.
Affleck’s direction is competent, if a little workmanlike. The period setting is lavishly constructed, and the cinematography by Robert Richardson bathes proceedings in a aged sepia tone. But this is all to be expected from a period film released in 2017. There is nothing new or noteworthy on display here. Inklings of revisionism surface on occasion, but Affleck never seems to get round to performing the kind of genre retooling that Polanski enacted for film noir with Chinatown.
Worst of all, Live by Night is just plain boring. We are given no reason to care for these characters, despite fine performances by a cast that includes the likes of Brendan Gleeson, Chris Cooper and Robert Glenister. None of the political polemic gets off the ground, and the plot reaches a half-baked conclusion because it has to, not because anything in the characters or events necessitates it. Affleck presents us with all the ingredients for a great gangster epic, then forgets to cook anything with them.