Live by Night, C-
Rated R, 129 minutes
The disappointing, flat new gangster drama "Live by Night" directed, written by and starring Ben Affleck has some bold visual moments but lacks a strong, substantive story.
The film, based on the Dennis Lehane novel of the same name, centers on Joe Coughlin (Affleck) prodigal son of a prominent police chief, and his gradual descent into the criminal underworld in 1920's Florida. He and his partner Dion (Chris Messina) help an Italian gangster run a rum empire in Florida with ambitious hopes of expanding to casinos and drugs, but not without considerable challenges along the way.
Up until now, I've been a fan of Affleck's directorial work, yet "Live by Night" is his weakest, least compelling movie to date, heavily loaded with style and a muddled, overlong story; in other words, much of is a mess, poorly written and directed by the Oscar-winner. "Live By Night" never fully explores its primary premise: does he or does he not want to be a gangster? Make up your mind, Ben before the audience falls asleep.
"Live by Night" shows that Affleck can infuse the film with a nice, pulpy visual flair that suits the material well: the costumes, sets and production design are all first-rate, but it falters narratively on several levels. First, it fails to establish Affleck's motivations in being a gangster in the first place, and second, it fails to connect all the dots, with a load of unnecessary characters and plot details that could've been excised, particularly in the last act with a bizarre subplot involving an Aimee Semple McPherson-type evangelist, played by a miscast Elle Fanning.
Still, you would think there would at least be some steamy romance, but Affleck also wastes the lovely Zoe Saldana and especially Sienna Miller, the latter who is seen only briefly at the beginning and end, giving them both very little to do. Miller's character is especially underwritten, explaining little in terms of character motivation. On a side note, as Affleck's sidekick, Messina (from TV's "The Mindy Project"), with extra padding and bad teeth, seems to be acting in another movie altogether.
The finale, an extended, bloody gunfight in a big mansion, comes as no big surprise, either, and on that note "Live by Night" goes on too long. "Live by Night" is a handsome failure and further exercise in style over substance.