Talk about punching above your weight. It’s a problem shared by not only every character of the movie but also the film itself. The source material was large and ambitious, stretching out into what felt like the boundaries of what crime stories have traditionally traded in. Ben Affleck’s adaptation instead seems to only struggle to find anything worth holding onto.
Instead, it holds onto everything. This is a film that can’t decide on a single theme—a single cohesive narrative—and would rather do it all. As you would expect, this leads to a confused, meandering, imprecise, and ineffective story by the end of a protracted, glacial 129-minute runtime. It doesn’t want to be a prohibition-era crime drama if it can be something about the complex and under-explored race relations of 1920s Tampa, but once it tires of that, it would rather be about reactive religious influence clashing with cold and calculating business.
Or it would then prefer to ruminate on victimization or the savagery of that which is different or any other number of a dozen things it only haphazardly touches on. The core of the film is comparatively straightforward. Joe Coughlin (Affleck) returns to Boston from World War I and begins to make a living stealing and hustling and generally being a criminal. After one particular heist goes awry, he is sentenced to life in prison, only to later get that reduced through connections with his police captain father.
Wanting to serve a nice cold dish of revenge to the ones that wronged him, Joe embarks on a multiyear journey that involves him signing on as an enforcer for Italian Mafia boss Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone), which sends him down south from Boston to Tampa to help expand Pescatore’s empire. Upon arriving, he engages in a cordial business relationship with Sheriff Irving Figgis (Chris Cooper) and a more carnal, physical relationship with Graciela Corrales (Zoe Saldana), sister of a local Cuban businessman.
Sounds like a lot of stuff, right? That’s because it is. Just from Figgis’ family, you have his brother-in-law working under the guiding hand of the Ku Klux Klan, attacking Joe’s various establishments for being involved with non-KKK-approved races. And then you have Figgis’ daughter, who eventually becomes a shining beacon within the sunny community for purity, chastity, and cleanliness, three things that would otherwise prohibit Joe’s aspirations from being realized.
At the surface level, these two things are interesting. For one, the KKK’s disdain for non-white people is expansive and broad but highly precise in how it manifests and what particular bents of attitude are achieved. And the transformation of the daughter steps in a different direction of how the overall goal of attenuating the divide with the holy can be as fickle as a coin flip when the realities that cause it and the scriptures that dictate it are anything but fickle.
But these events and themes come and go eerily fast. The complications they introduce are resolved and smoothed over like they were nothing more than a pothole. In the grand scheme of a mafia epic, sure, that happens. (It’s not like Goodfellas was anything less than a deluge of Stuff That Happens.) But none of this is presented in a way to where it all seems inevitable or seriously consequential. It’s more like this happened, and then for unrelated reasons, this other thing happened.
The strongest parts (and I’m not saying any part is strong in particular, just that some are better than others) should ring familiar, too, with any Affleck aficionado. (Afflecionado?) From The Town to Gone Baby Gone to certainly elements of Good Will Hunting Argo, you can see the components that he’s most practiced in. Those are the ones that are most digestible and not immediately repelling.
This isn’t a compliment so much as an analysis of an oeuvre. This might be showing the limits of Affleck’s capacity for storytelling, to where narrative beats and themes that fall outside of his domain crumble from the lack of a strong foundation. So as he attempts to reach further with parts of Live by Night, he instead weakens his standby beats by using them as filler for parts he is decidedly less comfortable relating.
For a drama, it is relatively free of exactly that. It is intelligibly full of high stakes, but it plays out in such a way that it feels completely devoid of tension and heft and gravity. This results in not much meat for the actors to chew on either, leaving perhaps the only lasting performance at the hands of the aforementioned racist brother-in-law R.D. Pruitt (Matthew Maher) and his 10 total minutes of screen time rather than Affleck’s stoic but unconvincing and simple Joe or Cooper’s heartbreaking but nonsensical Figgis.
At least it looks good, thanks to cinematographer Robert Richardson, who previously worked to make Hugo, Inglourious Basterds, and The Aviator look so Oscar-worthy (and many, many more). But I suppose that is the grand indictment of Live by Night: it’s a superficial, unrewarding, and hollow attempt at being much more than it is.
Final Score: 4 out of 10