Live by Night (Warner Brothers, R)

There are so many disappointments in this film that it’s hard to list all of them.

Warner Brothers made their name as the home of the gangster movie, from Little Caesar and The Public Enemy (both 1931) through White Heat (1949), and in a notably more recent example, Bonnie & Clyde (1967). So, if you’re going to make a gangster picture at Warner Brothers, you’d better bring your A game because your work will be going up against some of the best films in the American canon.

Ben Affleck clearly thinks he’s up to the task because not only does he direct Live By Night, he also wrote the screenplay (adapted from a Dennis Lehane novel) and plays the central character. He also hired some of the best technical talent in Hollywood to work on the film, including cinematographer Robert Richardson, costume designer Jacqueline West, editor William Goldenberg, and production designer Jess Gonchor, and judging by several spectacular action sequences, no expense was spared in the production. The result, unfortunately, is a film that looks great but is cliché-ridden and inert to the point where even the people up there on the screen seem bored with the whole production.

The story of Live by Night involves a World War I veteran, Joe Coughlin (Affleck), who turns his back on the straight life—as embodied by his police captain father (Brendan Gleeson)—in favor of a life of crime. Joe has a tendency to think with his little head, and a relationship with the mistress (Sienna Miller) of a rival gangster (Robert Glenister) does not end well. After a severe beating and some time in the Big House, Joe heads south with his partner Dion (Chris Messina) to work in the rum trade (Prohibition being the greatest gift ever to organized crime). He marries a Cuban beauty (Zoe Saldana), befriends the local sheriff, Irving Figgus (Chris Cooper), and plans to shift his profit center from rum-running to gambling, since he has an intuition that Prohibition will end soon.

There are a lot of complications in all of this, including the hatred of the local KKK toward Catholics and dark-skinned people and public opposition to legalized gambling, stoked by revival meetings led by Figgis’ born-again daughter (Elle Fanning). But once it becomes clear that Coughlin has become the Superman of Ybor City, complete with bullet-repelling force field and preternatural knowledge of what his enemies will do next, the film can create no tension despite many staged conflicts. Instead of a developing story, the Florida section of Live by Night offers up a series of set-pieces in which the outcome is obvious in advance, as surely as it was in the 1950s Superman TV show.

As he did in The Town, Affleck displays his need in this film to have it both ways: His character must be the greatest gangster of them all but also a really good guy who emerges unsullied from the death and destruction swirling around him. This tension has been part of gangster films since the early days, but Affleck’s film doesn’t grapple with it at all—instead, it simply  makes Coughlin’s enemies stupid and racist, not to mention seriously old-world and physically flawed (one even has a harelip), playing on audience prejudices and suggesting that only a handsome, clean-shaven, forward-looking guy should be allowed to rule organized crime.

There are so many disappointments in this film that it’s hard to list all of them. The female roles are all throwaways. An annoying voiceover plus tons of expo-speak show no respect for the audience’s intelligence. Brendan Gleeson does more fine acting in his few brief scenes than Affleck does in the entire film (note: posing is not acting, no matter how rugged your jaw line). Chris Cooper’s character is needlessly stripped of his dignity in the one twist too far that seems to be the rule in Lehane screen adaptations. There’s some beautiful landscape cinematography that seems to exist entirely for its own sake, and in the two big set-pieces (one is a car chase, the other a shoot-out), no care is taken to see that it makes any sense—it’s just a lot of generic action pasted into the film. In the end, Live by Night is, as Macbeth might say, a tale full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. | Sarah Boslaugh

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