Ben Affleck has proven himself to be a competent director. He usually knows just what kind of look and feel he wants in regards to his films, which is why Live by Night is so hard to swallow. It’s a crime movie masquerading as a gangster-style film. It has all the makings of one, too, but the film is weighed down by its attempts to do too much in one go. Does it want to be an old-school gangster film? Is it a love story with a lot of crime? Is it about one man’s redemption in the face of wrongdoing? Affleck, who also writes the film, doesn’t seem to know the answer to any of these questions. Tonally, Live by Night is entirely uneven. It feels more like several puzzle pieces that never find a way to fit together. The film is beautiful to look at, but it is by far one of Affleck’s most disappointing films.
Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck) is a former World War I soldier-turned-robber. The son of an Irish immigrant to Boston and police captain, Thomas Coughlin (Brendan Gleason), Joe is in love with a woman named Emma Gould (Sienna Miller). While he gets away with robbing banks and running from police despite his father’s place inside its institution, Joe can’t escape the wrath of Emma’s husband, crime boss Albert White (Robert Glenister), after he finds out about their affair.
But after almost being murdered by White and then subsequently imprisoned for three years, Joe sets his sights on Tampa, Florida and the illegal bootlegging business along its shores. Teaming up with White’s enemy, Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone), Joe corners the illegal markets, working with the Suarez family (Zoe Saldana, Miguel J. Pimentel) and Chief Figgis (Chris Cooper), of the local police department, to ensure its fluidity and monetary success. As the business booms, Joe finds that he has to face several moral and physical roadblocks before he can fully settle into his life and come to the decision about the man he ultimately wants to be.
Live by Night initially seemed to be going in the direction of revenge. Revenge for ending up in prison, for the grieving Joe endures because of Albert White, and so on. But the film eventually finds itself on a road completely diverged from what it sets itself up to be. Shady morals, ideals of what it means to be a good man, pain by way of a corrupt life, and racial tensions of the time period all make their way into the fabric of the film. Separately, tackling these issues sounds worthwhile. Affleck’s script, however, lacks any actual focus and so all of these threads unravel into chaos. Because the film is so messy and thematically murky, Affleck’s character development is lost and overshadowed by the film’s visual elements.
Aside from its lack of focus, one of the more frustrating aspects of the film is the way it treats and its female characters. Sienna Miller is “the whore” who parlays in the game of love, but turns deceitful; Zoe Saldana is marginalized and, although at first made out to be an equal partner in her family’s business, is quickly relegated to brief and often insignificant scenes with Affleck that are simply reminders to the audience that he loves and could lose her; and Elle Fanning, as the young and impressionable Loretta Figgis, whose dreams of Hollywood stardom are dropped after bad experiences leave her preaching about the sin of alcohol and gambling, unravels at the seams. All three women meet a bad end in one form or another and are unfortunately just stepping stones to further Affleck’s story, which include his moral and personal realizations. This cheapens their characters and any potential for them to be bigger players is never realized.
Live by Night is not one of Affleck’s finest moments. The film has several interesting plot threads, but it’s too unfocused to be anything besides frustrating. The film is messy and tonally uneven. It mishandles its female characters and its several story arcs. And due to a run time of over two hours, there are a lot of moments that feel like the end, but then the film surprises by carrying on even though it doesn’t need to. Live by Night doesn’t know what it wants to be or what direction to go in and it becomes tiring to watch Affleck’s attempts at figuring it out.