"Live By Night", the latest from actor/director Ben Affleck, has a solid Boston pedigree, as it's based on a novel by prolific local writer Dennis Lehane, who also penned the source material for "Mystic River", "Shutter Island", and "Gone Baby Gone". It also showcases the rise of the city's Italian-Irish mob war that's been examined more fully in such Hub-focused fare as "Black Mass" and "The Departed". And, of course, Mr. Affleck himself is a product of the "Athens of America". He's explored these roots to great effect both as a screenwriter ("Good Will Hunting") and a director ("Gone Baby Gone", "The Town", "Argo"). In "Live By Night" Mr. Affleck is front and center as lead actor and director, and with this release he has also added "producer" to his impressive list of credits.
So how does "Live By Night" align with Mr. Affleck's body of work thus far? Well, it's an interesting step forward, though something of a mixed bag. Joe Coughlin (Affleck) is a disillusioned WWI veteran-turned-criminal in 1920s Boston, and the first 30 minutes of his tale provide an opportunity to hit a number of the usual Beantown crime-story beats: ethnic gangland rivalries, star-crossed lovers, and an ill-fated bank robbery leading to a hurtling car chase down pedestrian-crowded streets. He's fallen in love with Emma Gould (Sienna Miller), the salty, sultry sweetheart of a merciless Irish mob-boss, but their plan to run away together goes spectacularly awry, as does Joe's brazen daytime attempt at bank robbery. Long story short: a few years go by, Joe pursues revenge by aligning himself with mafia don Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone), and he finds himself en route to Florida to corner the Gulf Coast rum market for Pescatore.
Once there Joe reunites with his old crony Dion Bartolo (Chris Messina, who shines here as the textbook definition of a "right-hand man"), creates alliances with the local police chief (Chris Cooper, "Adaptation") and a Cuban rumrunner, and promptly falls for his Cuban associate's sister, Graciela (Zoe Saldana, "Guardians of the Galaxy"). There's a ton of story here, and it leads to Joe working his way to the top of the local crime syndicate, framing out a grand oceanfront gambling hall in anticipation of Prohibition's end, running afoul of the KKK in the form of bumptious, bigoted would-be rival RD Pruitt (Matthew Maher), and accidentally igniting the career of tent revival evangelist Loretta Figgis (Elle Fanning, in a role clearly modeled on Christian crusader Aimee Semple McPherson).
As a director Mr. Affleck remains admirably sure-handed, and he handily wrangles the many, many story elements here in a way that keeps things moving but never feels rushed. However, "Live By Night" may just be too much material for a two-hour movie. There's not enough time to spend with the venerable Brendan Gleeson, who in the film's early scenes plays Joe's Boston Police Commissioner father with a dignified fatalism that casts a far-reaching shadow over the rest of his son's story. And an emotional turn by Chris Cooper's grieving Chief Figgis that leads to the film's denouement seems a bit sketched in; it's not a failing of the performance so much as it is a likely-unavoidable shortage of screen time.
But there are elements here that will delight moviegoers: the getaway of Joe's gang in a speeding Model T Ford after they pull the bank heist is an unexpected thrill ride, dodging around oncoming city traffic then barreling down closely-forested dirt roads with the police in hot pursuit; and the glowing, sun-drenched Southern landscapes, photographed in wide shots that are a sensual shift from the claustrophobic intensity that has characterized Mr. Affleck's earlier efforts, particularly "The Town".
Fans of his work will also have fun playing "spot the actor", as Mr. Affleck has chosen to engage a number of repeat players, including Chris Cooper ("The Town"), Chris Messina ("Argo"), Matthew Maher ("Gone Baby Gone"), and Titus Welliver ("The Town", "Argo", "Gone Baby Gone"). And he certainly knows how to direct his fellow actors; "Live By Night's" performances are uniformly strong, with the aforementioned Mr. Messina standing out for his nimble mix of wry humor and offhand aggression. Ms. Fanning also deserves accolades for her luminous portrayal of a would-be saint who struggles with questions of faith and modern morality.
Mr. Affleck never fully relaxes into his leading man role here, so his performance serves to move the story forward but the real emotional engagement is left to his co-stars. This leaves "Live By Night" feeling a bit hollow in the center, but with so many compelling things happening just to the right and left, viewers will probably forgive this. After all, Mr. Affleck has done excellent work here as director and producer, and really, how many hats can one man be expected to wear...even if they are period-perfect fedoras?