Based on Dennis Lehane’s novel (and reuniting Affleck with the author of Gone Baby Gone, his first directorial effort and still his best), Live by Night follows the struggles of too-honest-for-this-world Boston outlaw Joe Coughlin (Affleck), a World War I vet who comes home from combat convinced that “the rules we had lived by were lies, and they didn’t apply to those that made them.” So he becomes an armed robber, holding up bars and poker games. Somehow also sticking by a moral code that prevents him from killing anybody, Joe refuses to join in with either the Irish mob or the Italian mob: “I ain’t a gangster, and I done enough killing in this life,” he protests (which raises the question of why he chose to become a criminal in the first place, but let’s not digress). He also rejects the overtures of his veteran police honcho dad Thomas (Brendan Gleeson, because it’s not a movie about the Irish without Brendan Gleeson).
The opening incidents pass by in a blur, and could have probably made for their own sustained little story: Joe is romancing the girlfriend (Sienna Miller) of Irish mob boss Albert White (Robert Glenister). The Italians find out and try to recruit Joe, he refuses, a job goes wrong, she betrays him, the Irish try to kill him, the cops save him, she dies, Joe goes to prison, his dad dies, Joe’s released years later, he finds himself all out of options and he finally falls in with the Italians.
Take a breath. We’re just starting. The Italians send Joe down to Tampa, Florida, not just to run their rum operations there but also to do battle against Albert White, who has since made his own way south and is trying to muscle in on the Italians’ turf. In the small town of Ybor (“the Harlem of Tampa”), Joe falls for Graciela Suarez (Zoe Saldana), whose wealthy Cuban family is a key supplier for Joe’s operation. He also strikes a tense truce with God-fearing local sheriff Figgis (Chris Cooper), who tolerates Joe’s operations, just barely: “I know I live in a fallen world,” he tells Joe, “but just because I breathe corrupt air, and live in a world of corrupt men, never believe that I am corrupt myself.”
Believe it or not, we’re still just getting started. More confrontations are in the works for Joe: with other gangsters, with the Ku Klux Klan, with religious zealots … suffice it to say that Live by Night piles on the incidents and relies mostly on Joe’s voiceover to stitch it all together. That’s no guarantee of a dissatisfying narrative, but in this case Affleck’s narration inelegantly veers between the functional (“I came back to my childhood home, and considered my options”) and the portentous (“I realized to be free in this life, breaking the rules meant nothing. You had to be strong enough to make your own”) without ever quite ringing sincere.
This fragmentation is fatal, because the only constant through the whole story is Joe, the unlikely outlaw with a moral code. If he were a charismatic protagonist, or even just an interesting one — someone with the ruined charm of Jack Nicholson in Chinatown, say, or the gonzo lunacy of Al Pacino in Scarface — things might have held together. But Affleck plays Joe with that patented sulk of his — half hangdog, half trying-to-concentrate-really-hard — which drains his character of compelling motivation, and the story of suspense.
There are potentially promising through-lines, however: It’s clear that Lehane and Affleck have conceived of the story as a tale about fathers and children, for instance. Joe’s complex relationship with his cop dad fuels much of his inner conflict in early scenes. Sheriff Figgis’s adoration of his daughter (Elle Fanning), who wants to go to Hollywood and become a star, is at the center of other plot developments. Late in the film, the Italian mob boss’s dimwitted son comes to Tampa to help run the operations, threatening Joe’s authority. But the film is too cluttered to give any of these ideas room to breathe and develop. The pieces lack connective tissue, a sense of purpose or any real reason to become emotionally invested. And while at times you can glimpse what Live by Night could have been — and perhaps may become yet — for now, you’re left with an overwhelming sense of waste.