Ben Affleck’s comeback in Hollywood is due in large part to his work as a director. His work on Gone Baby Gone showed a surprising amount of talent, The Town proved he could act in his work as well, and Argo…let’s face it, winning a Best Picture Oscar is no small feat. So it makes sense that for his follow-up to Argo, he’d want to go with something that on paper sounds juicy: a mobster during Prohibition who comes up against the KKK. I mean, that just sounds promising. Unfortunately, Live by Night lacks the focus to tell an interesting story, and that lack of focus also is true of whatever may drive its lead character.
Joe Coughlin (Affleck) turns to a life of crime after returning home from World War I. He has some success pulling off heists in Boston. He also happens to be in love with Emma Gould (Sienna Miller), who’s also the mistress of Irish mob boss Albert White (Robert Glenister). Joe manages to survive Albert’s wrath when he finds out, and he ends up working for Albert’s chief rival, Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone). Maso sends Joe to Tampa to run a bootlegging operation, which Joe grows into a major success – but at the risk of compromising the specific morals Joe holds unto himself, as he encounters opposition from various forces.
There’s a lot of potential with Live by Night. The film introduces plenty of characters who are attention-grabbing, including Joe’s father Thomas (Brendan Gleeson), who’s a cop wanting to protect his son. Tampa has its own law enforcement officer, Figgis (Chris Cooper), who holds himself to a certain moral standard but allows criminal activity to happen within certain bounds. Figgis has his own child – a daughter, Loretta (Elle Fanning) – who goes from being an aspiring actress to an evangelist. These are all interesting characters, which cannot be said about Joe.
Affleck’s made a choice about Joe: he wants him to be redeemable. The way he’s done it, though, doesn’t make Joe compelling. We know early on that Joe wants to be “good” on some level, and that plays out time and time again. Joe does some truly rotten things in this film, but because he wants to not be that bad…he isn’t, in the end. There isn’t anything to warrant Joe’s outcome.
Visually, Live by Night is gorgeous. On a technical level, Affleck knows what he’s doing, and he’s pulled in a strong team to craft a film that looks great. But all the visual strength he can muster can’t save a story that is not only lacking, but feels far more drawn out than its runtime would suggest. It’s an unfortunate step back for Ben Affleck, the filmmaker. Here’s hoping whatever he does next – presumably The Batman – will work far more successfully.