Live By Night, another big-screen adaptation of a novel by Boston’s pulp-laureate Dennis Lehane (Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone, Shutter Island, The Drop), is a Prohibition-era mobster saga that plays out like a Boardwalk Empire-imitation board-game. Ben Affleck, directing his fourth feature, rolls us through a tumultuous ten years—approximately 1927 to 1936—in America’s 20th century in just over two hours, moves token-like characters around, and jumps through scenes like he’s secret-passaging us in and out of Clue rooms.
It all starts in after the First World War in Beantown, amid an Irish Italian gang-war, but there’s little sense—beyond him being the main character, played by Affleck—that vet-turned- stick-up man Joe Coughlin will become a gangster extraordinaire. Sure enough, though, one (pretty good) car chase, one betrayal, and one blackmail later, he’s in jail. It’s a three-year stint covered in about three seconds, then he’s out and turned by Maso Pescatore into his main made-man down in Tampa, overseeing a rum-running operation. But then a different kind of gang—the KKK—shows up…
The dialogue snaps, sure, but a little too much, skimming from zinger to zinger. As if taking a cue from it, scenes and people are zipped, or unzipped, through, too. Coughlin sees the smoldering Cuban beauty he’ll be with the second he steps off the train; yet another quick-fix blackmailing turns on a girl we only saw for a few seconds, so her father’s anguish can hardly cut us up much. That KKK force-to-be-reckoned-with turns out to be easy to get rid of; a grandiose shoot-out finale is riddled with anti-climax. And even then comes coda after coda.
Here and there lurk a few colourful moments and striking turns: one sudden conversation detour about the source of a stray bullet; another speak-uneasy, this time in a revival tent, about bestiality; Matthew Maher’s slightly lisping, not-so-dumb Klansman; Elle Fanning’s near success as a sorrowful, tainted Madonna-figure (it’s the script’s fault, not hers); Sienna Miller’s gun moll, washed up by the Atlantic onto a Miami tenement block. But, wisps of what could have been, these moments smoke away from the barrel of this sprawling spectacle’s rapid-fire tommy-gun, dead by light.
Directed by Ben Affleck