If Ben Affleck’s intent with Live by Night was to bridge the gap between his heretofore earthbound directorial filmography and his upcoming Batman blockbuster by wedging a garishly stylized, heavily costumed epic in between, then I suppose his mission is accomplished. Judged by all other criteria, the film is Affleck’s most square-jawed and least successful filmmaking foray, a period saga of such ungainly narrative earnestness that even its most exciting sequences are blunted by the cumbersome drag of their connective tissue.
The on-screen results certainly don’t square with writer-director Affleck’s demonstrable intent, which is to explore the delicate balance of good and evil, an enormous moral gulf separated by only a thin dividing line, and the persistence of guilt that plagues one who attempts move back and forth between the two sides. The filmmaker’s consistent thematic preoccupations have always hovered around slippery ethical slopes, so this Prohibition Era crime saga charting one man’s gradual transformation from proper soldier to small-time outlaw to stolid kingpin fits the mold. It’s chock full of evil crime lords and compromised pure souls, seething hatemongers and sterling whistleblowers – there’s even a literal Madonna-and-Whore dichotomy. Yet Affleck’s preponderance of narrative thematic symbols is dampened by the sprawling solemnity of the narrative itself.
Affleck also headlines the film, his hulking Bat presence something of a distracting modern standout amid the relentlessly Production Designed period scenery. He’s Joe Coughlin, a war veteran and son of a Boston police captain (Brendan Gleeson), who makes a name for himself by sharply breaking from his upstanding roots and running scams amid the Irish and Italian mod clash in Roaring Twenties Boston. The contrasts are clear – living a life of crime in the face of a law enforcement family, skirting the shifting loyalties between warring crime families, the glitz of upper crust wealth juxtaposed against the seedy underground slinging of prohibited hooch. There’s also a myriad of colorful characters peppered throughout, from compromised government officials to lethal mob kingpins to opportunistic Klansmen to dames who represent the lure of sin (Sienna Miller), the purity of true love (Zoe Saldana), and the obstinate rigors of fundamentalist piety (Elle Fanning). Joe meets them all throughout this triptych, which hurtles forward sometimes years at a time, from Boston to Tampa to Cuba, charting his rise through the ranks of organized crime, fully straightforward but rendered incoherent just by sheer volume.
Live by Night is based on a Dennis Lehane novel of the same name, and wears that literary pedigree like an albatross around its neck. Affleck clearly aims to explore the weight of guilt over a life of escalating betrayal of ideals, but he’s bogged down by the languorous jaunt into formal period gangster protocol. So we have a fundamental imbalance of narrative boredom and thematic intrigue, long-winded A-to-Z epic that occasionally punctuates the monotony with scenes where Affleck can indulge in the thematic implications he angles for throughout the haze of standard-order mob material. The film is constantly warring with itself, torn between slavish loyalty to the source material and Affleck’s own desire to punch up each sequence with his thematic underpinnings, drawing a thick, bold through line of capital-P Purpose from Fade In to Fade Out. It feels like a put-on, Affleck’s moral quandary dressed up in loud, jazzy garb and played out on an elegant soundstage.