Ben Affleck has directed some very good movies. “Live by Night” is not one of them.
It’s a Roaring ’20s gangster film, with one eye toward the Warner Bros. classics of the early sound era (it’s even a WB production) and another eye on the labyrinthine plotting of Dennis Lehane’s 2012 source novel. If that makes the movie sound wall-eyed, it is. I haven’t read Lehane’s book, but if it’s anything like “The Given Day,” the first in the writer’s “Coughlin trilogy,” it’s a meaty, irresistible work of fiction that somehow manages to simultaneously sprawl and sprint. Affleck the screenwriter seems to have dumped the story onto the kitchen table and pushed it around like dough, hoping for some shape to emerge. It resists.
The director also stars as Joe Coughlin, a WWI vet who has turned to freelance bank robbery out of cynicism and spite. He may be a criminal but he’s no gangster — the film works hard to split this hair — and he refuses on principle to kill Albert White (Robert Glenister), the head of Boston’s Irish mob, at the behest of North End mafia capo Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone). Joe has reason to get White out of the way, since he’s in love with the man’s mistress, Emma (Sienna Miller), a self-styled “Dorchester ghoul” bitter about “tattin’ the lace for the curtains” of the well-to-do Irish like Joe’s police detective father (Brendan Gleeson).
Phew! That’s a lot of plot, and just as “Live by Night” is shifting into high gear, it grinds to a halt, throws out all that juicy, well-researched historical Boston stuff, and sends Joe down to Tampa, where he takes over Pescatore’s rum operations along with sidekick Dion Bartolo (an unrecognizable Chris Messina). Many, many new characters are introduced: a sultry Cuban activist (Zoe Saldana) to warm the hero’s bed and fire up his social conscience; a crusty local police chief (Chris Cooper, doing more with the role than it may deserve); the police chief’s daughter (Elle Fanning), a wannabe actress-addict at one point and a fire-breathing tent show evangelist at another. (Fanning delivers an overwrought and pretty dreadful performance — a rarity for her. She’s much better in this week’s “20th Century Women.”)
There’s a long plot spiral about the KKK that tastelessly equates actor Matthew Maher’s hare-lip with moral degradation and seems intent on a metaphor for modern-day “deplorables.” Toward the end, Max Casella turns up as Pescatore Jr., which gives Affleck an excuse for an old style gangster-movie bloodbath. It’s too much too late, and even then “Live by Night” keeps rolling through several false endings before coming to a gradual, quizzical stop.
Affleck knows how to build a production by this point, and the movie looks and sounds great. Individual scenes hold water and there are sly visual grace notes like the hat that sails quietly to a landing next to a gangster’s body that has just gone splat on the street.
The problems are a screenplay that can’t decide which story to tell, unmemorable casting choices in key supporting roles, and a central performance that, curiously, isn’t very much there. We like our movie gangsters outsize and crazy (see Pacino, Al, in “Scarface”) or life-size and complicated (see Pacino, Al, in “The Godfather”). In Affleck’s muted playing, Joe Coughlin is simply life-size and . . . dull. He’s supposed to be lethal in his stillness, but there’s no edge to the character. Joe’s a nice guy who seems to have wandered into the wrong movie.
So, no, the lightning that electrified “Gone Baby Gone” hasn’t struck twice, sad to say, and the star’s passivity hobbles the film further. Is Affleck preoccupied by the thought that he’s committed to playing Batman for the foreseeable future? In fact, his next work as a director is the Warner Bros./DC franchise reboot “The Batman.” Maybe that doesn’t explain why the spark seems missing from “Live by Night.” But maybe it’s hard to play a freelancer when you’re feeling owned.
LIVE BY NIGHT
Written and directed by Ben Affleck, based on the novel by Dennis Lehane. Starring Affleck, Sienna Miller, Zoe Saldana, Chris Messina, Elle Fanning, Chris Cooper. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 129 minutes. R (strong violence, language throughout, some sexuality/nudity).Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.