I had high hopes for Live by Night, Ben Affleck’s latest effort as director, writer, and star. I’m a great admirer of his previous films (Gone Baby Gone, The Town, and Argo) but this one falls short, I’m sorry to say. Dennis Lehane’s sprawling crime novel, which moves from 1920s Boston to the unfamiliar setting of Tampa, Florida, must have seemed irresistible. It offers great possibilities but the result left me wanting.
I kept asking myself what was missing. The period atmosphere is rich and the characters are colorful, offering juicy parts to a number of good actors. Unfortunately I realized that the problem is Affleck himself. He’s dull. Part of this is deliberate: as he explains in his opening narration, he’s been deadened by his experiences on the front lines in World War One. As he puts it, he went in as a soldier and came home an outlaw, thriving during the Prohibition era. But the actor’s one-note performance does this movie no favors. Picture almost anyone else in the leading role as a common criminal who reluctantly aligns himself with a brutal Italian crime gang, and you can see the potential. (In bygone days, this would have been a perfect vehicle for Robert Mitchum or late-era Dick Powell.)
As a director, Affleck excels in staging chases and action scenes and this film has several that are genuinely exciting. The supporting characters are well-cast with Sienna Miller as a mobster’s glamorous moll, Brendan Gleeson as Affleck’s career-cop father, an almost-unrecognizable Chris Messina as the hero’s swarthy sidekick, Chris Cooper as a Southern sheriff, Elle Fanning as an innocent girl who undergoes a transformation, and Zoe Saldana as a sexy Cuban who catches Affleck’s eye in Tampa.
These potent ingredients should add up to something more satisfying. Live by Night aspires to take its place alongside great movie crime sagas; it’s a shame the effort that went into it doesn’t pay off.