Somewhere inside the 128-minute Live by Night is a reasonably solid 168-minute movie struggling to get out. No, that's not a typo: You can sense the contours of an absorbing story as writer/director/star Ben Affleck's slapdash and fragmented assemblage limps along. Most of the pieces are there, but they remain pieces.
Based on Dennis Lehane's novel, 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, sticking by a moral code that prevents him from killing anybody.
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 Italian mob finds 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 and Joe's released years later.
Take a breath. We're just starting. The Italians send Joe down to Florida to do battle against White, who is trying to muscle in on the Italians' turf. More confrontations come: with other gangsters, with the Ku Klux Klan, with religious zealots. The pieces lack a sense of purpose. While at times you can glimpse what Live by Night could have been, you're left with an overwhelming sense of waste.