Sleeping by day and living by night, scrappy Prohibition hoodlum Joe Coughlin is not short of ambition – and neither is Ben Affleck, writer, director, producer and star of Live by Night, a sprawling gangster epic based on the novel by Dennis Lehane.
Yet as the movie charts its hero’s rise up the underworld ranks, from disenchanted Great War veteran to Boston stickup man, and thence to Florida rum runner and Mob big shot, Affleck’s own cinematic reach exceeds his grasp. Which is something of a comedown given the achievements of his first three films as a director, Gone Baby Gone, The Town and Argo.
His movie, beautifully lensed by Tarantino’s DP of choice, Robert Richardson, certainly looks fabulous, and his co-stars deliver some crackerjack performances, including those of Sienna Miller as a dangerously slinky gangster’s moll, Elle Fanning as a would-be starlet turned revivalist preacher and Mathew Maher as a lethally unhinged, creepily lisping Ku Klux Klansman (yes, Joe tangles with them, as well). The climactic shoot-out packs quite a punch, too.
Yet despite all this the overall movie is surprisingly dull. And the blame lies with Affleck the actor: he’s just too handsomely bland for the role. He doesn’t really convey the bitterness of the ex-soldier who turns to outlawry after his experiences in the trenches; and he doesn’t convince us that his character possesses the ruthlessness to get to the top of the underworld.
Instead, Affleck seems more intent on impressing us with Joe’s progressive credentials as he faces down bigoted WASPs and champions diversity, not least by romancing Zoë Saldana’s sultry Cuban beauty. A darker figure might have given the movie a much needed edge. Instead, Joe is too decent, and too PC, to be a credible Prohibition-era crook.
Certificate 15. Runtime 128 mins. Director Ben Affleck