As a feature-length director, Ben Affleck hit home runs in his first three trips to the plate with “Gone Baby Gone,” “The Town” and “Argo.”
In at-bat No. 4, he flies out to medium-deep right field.
Affleck directs, adapts a screenplay based on a Dennis Lehane novel, produces AND stars in “Live by Night,” a curiously unfocused Prohibition-era gangster epic with some well-choreographed action scenes, a few provocative plot threads — but an increasingly meandering main story line that goes from intriguing to confounding to preachy to what exactly are we even watching here?
Affleck’s first problem as a director is his own performance as Boston-born Irish mobster Joe Coughlin, a big lunk in snazzy suits and wide-brimmed hats who tells his tale in flat, cliché-riddled, voice-over narration. It’s as if Joe himself isn’t all that interested in The Story of Joe.
After seeing combat in World War I and witnessing “good men dying for no good reason” in France while the men who start wars and run the world suffer no consequences, Joe returns home with one goal: to grab life by the collar and live it to the fullest, consequences be damned.
“I left a soldier and came home an outlaw,” says Joe.
The earliest sequences in “Live by Night” are the most compelling. Joe and his small crew, including the obligatory wisecracking, loyal sidekick Dion Bartolo (a miscast Chris Messina, sporting crooked teeth and a paunch), are knocking off banks left and right while trying to steer clear of the mob wars between the Italians and the Irish.
Fat chance. Joe’s street smart, but he’s not too bright. Seems as if half the city knows he’s a bank robber.
Joe’s father (an excellent Brendan Gleeson) is the deputy superintendent of police, torn between defending the law and protecting his son’s not-too-secret criminal shenanigans. Meanwhile, Joe’s carrying on a steamy affair with one Emma Gould (Sienna Miller), a charming floozy from the wrong side of town who is also the mistress of Irish mob boss Albert White (Robert Glenister).
That entanglement creates a bloody mess that leads to Joe winding up in Tampa, working for Italian mob boss Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone), taking control of moving mass quantities of illegal “demon rum,” running nightclubs — and falling in love with Zoe Saldana’s Graciella Suarez.
Affleck the director does a fine job staging shootouts and car chases and bloody confrontations in nightclubs and offices. When the violence comes, it comes hard and heavy — and in sometimes shocking fashion. It’s mob gunfire in the tradition of Coppola and Scorsese.
Once we’re in Florida, however, the screenplay weaves this way and that, as Joe wavers between executing his mission with cold-hearted efficiency and experiencing moments of conscience at the most inconvenient times. What Affleck the actor fails to convey is the motivation behind some of Joe’s more dubious decisions.
Chris Cooper is the Tampa police chief, one Irving Figgis, who seems awfully naïve for someone who says he’s killed seven men in his life. Elle Fanning is the police chief’s daughter, Loretta, who is nearly swallowed up by evil before she emerges as a preacher railing against sin and corruption. (A scene where the police chief physically disciplines his daughter for her past transgressions is uncomfortable and creepy and just plain bizarre.)
Oh, and let’s not forget the KKK, conveniently inserted into the Florida timeline so we can root for Joe and his thugs, because hey, they’re not as horrible as these dimwit inbred hate-filled clowns.
Zoe Saldana is wasted as Joe’s loyal wife, whose main function is to worry about Joe and warn Joe he’ll lose himself if he commits too many terrible deeds, and then to worry about Joe even more. Sienna Miller’s Emma and Brendan Gleeson’s policeman are two of the more interesting characters — but they’re not with us for nearly enough scenes.
Chris Cooper’s Chief Figgis is a complex man given to speeches about how he rubs elbows with the corrupt but is incorruptible, a righteous hypocrite with deep inner demons. Cooper’s performance is raw and real and unsettling. It’s as if he’s in a better, more interesting, more challenging film.
Misgivings aside, I was enjoying “Live by Night” as a guilty pleasure of sorts and was on the verge of giving it a qualified recommendation until the last 10 minutes, which are equal parts predictable and way, way over the top.
Warner Bros. presents a film written and directed by Ben Affleck, based on the novel by Dennis Lehane. Rated R (for strong violence, language throughout, and some sexuality/nudity). Running time: 129 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.