If you had the financial and logistical resources of a major Hollywood studio production, I’d have a hard time blaming you for making a period gangster picture. It’s a genre that seems hard-wired into our sense of what’s cool and stylish about movies, whether it’s classics like The Godfather and GoodFellas or also-rans like The Untouchables and Public Enemies. The trouble is that those pictures cast a long shadow, one that hangs too heavily over the early scenes of Ben Affleck’s Live By Night, which have a sense of dressing up and play-acting. The themes and beats of the gangster movie have become so familiar, and the films that established them so beloved, that you almost have to rebuild the thing to make an impression. Strangely enough, once the overly run-of-the-mill first scenes are done with, Affleck does just that.
It’s not even that those early scenes are bad, just overly familiar. Affleck, who also wrote the screenplay adaptation (from Dennis Lahane’s novel), stars as Joe Coughlin, a WWI vet and 1920s-era Boston outlaw. He fills in his backstory via the required hard-boiled narration (“I lived that life for ten years, until it caught up to me.”) There’s a gangster’s girl (Sienna Miller) who he falls for, and a rival gangster who wants to put him to work. Affleck has a flurry of names and relationships to establish in these early scenes, but those are the basics. And then the whole thing goes sideways; Joe ends up in the pen, and when he gets out, his thirst for revenge lands him down in Florida.
The Sunshine State is a good change of scenery for Joe – and for the movie. There, he’s paired up with Chris Messina (sporting a solid accent and an even better mustache), and they get a very good two-act going, strong-arming their way into the rum scene, sniffing around in local politics, and even taking on the local chapter of the KKK (not gonna lie, a Mob vs. Klan plot is awfully satisfying at this particular cultural moment). As the complications pile up, it becomes clear that Live By Night is a richer movie than it seemed, with a lot of story to tell and atmosphere to spin, and the proto-Hiassen sun-drenched corruption of the Florida section has a freshness that the bundled-up big city gangster stuff can’t match.
The casting helps, too. Affleck stocks the film with great character actors: the aforementioned Messina and Miller, along with Brendan Gleeson, Elle Fanning, and Chris Cooper. The latter all but steals the movie, taking what could’ve been a stock role and running blood through its veins. In what turns out to be the film’s key scene, he’s on the receiving end of a shakedown, shown pictures that reveal the dark fates that have befallen his beloved daughter (Fanning), and he plays it with such real anguish and despair, it almost stops the movie. He doesn’t treat this role like throwaway support in a genre picture. He plays it like he’s the lead in a chamber piece.
In fact, Fanning’s entire subplot is unexpected and affecting. She comes back from the brink and becomes a born-again spiritual leader, whipping out her track marks like a parlor trick and asking her parishioners, “How cheap is your virtue?” But there’s something else happening, something still too fragile under her newly forceful exterior; Affleck seems to shoot their two-scenes in tighter close-ups than the rest of the movie, pushing their emotional intensity and wounded subtext. There’s something going on underneath them, which he leaves for us to figure out.
Live By Night is perhaps a bit too busy for its own good, leaving lesser-developed scenes to play out squarely on their actors’ noses, and secondary characters with little to do (Affleck and romantic interest Zoe Saldana smolder convincingly, but boy is hers a nothing-burger of a role). And while his sturdy performance anchors the ensemble nicely, Affleck himself comes up a bit short emotionally in the clutch.
But he remains a fine filmmaker. The dialogue is sharp, but not overly clever (“Put yourself on that train, Gary L, or we’re gonna have to put you under it”), and he stages two very fine action sequences: a tightly-wound getaway gone awry, and a climactic shoot-out that’s pitched like a knuckleball. His first feature as a director, Gone Baby Gone, was also a Lahane adaptation, and this film doesn’t match that one (indeed, none of his still-awfully-good subsequent efforts have). But in its best moments, it recaptures not only that picture’s craftsmanship, but its soul.
Live By Night is out Christmas Day in limited release. It opens wide on January 13.