“Live by Night,” the latest film from writer-director-actor Ben Affleck (“Argo”), stumbles in its opening minute. In a sepia montage of his World War I service, Affleck's Joe Coughlin reveals that his experience in that terrible European war taught him not that violence is bad, but that he should fundamentally distrust rules. That’s really all we know of Coughlin, besides his Irish origin and that he has a police chief for a father (Brendan Gleeson, “Calvary”). He became a gangster — a relatively powerful one at that (though the extent and mechanics of his success is rather oblique) — in prohibition-era Boston. Little internal conflict, little moral struggle. Just breaking the rules. It’s not really a motive, but it’s an excuse for Affleck to have a lot of fun behind and in front of the camera.
Breaking the rules means a lot of killing, appropriate for a gangster movie. Coughlin moves from Boston to Florida to escape his rival gangster, Albert White (Robert Glenister, “Close to the Enemy”), enraged at Coughlin for an affair with his mistress, Emma (Sienna Miller, “Foxcatcher”). In Ybor City, outside of Tampa, he works in a rum business run by Italian Mafioso Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone, “La Piovra”), all the while looking to expand into gambling in Sarasota once prohibition inevitably ends. He’s reunited with his old partner, Dion (Chris Messina, “Cake”), and finds love in Graciela (Zoe Saldana, “Star Trek Beyond”), whose brother runs a business in the area. Coughlin maneuvers around the local police chief (Chris Cooper, “Demolition”), whose brother-in-law (Matthew Maher, “Gone Baby Gone”) works in the Ku Klux Klan and whose daughter Loretta (Elle Fanning, “20th Century Women”) goes off to Hollywood but becomes an anti-vice Christian preacher, throwing a wrench in Coughlin’s plans.
Confused yet? It’s only natural, given the sheer density of the plot. But even complicated stories can entice the audience, revealing details slowly and methodically. “Live by Night” fails on this front, revealing details quickly, all at once and without building up. Affleck, who adapted Dennis Lehane’s novel of the same name, uses extensive voice over by Coughlin as a crutch; he blandly outlines his motives and the ensuing events, but with so little clarity that fundamental names and faces are left unclear, even at the end. Affleck seems more concerned with getting to the elaborate set pieces (which themselves are beautifully crafted, though often times confusing for those following along), but he forgot to show what they mean.
And that’s a problem when the film is fundamentally a dialogue-heavy movie masquerading as a gangster action film. Take the romance between Emma and Joe that propels the opening of the film. We learn rather quickly the two are together, aided by Harry Gregson-Williams’s (“The Martian”) lush score, but we feel nothing for them. They’re just in a secretive relationship, devoid of any true passion that we can discern from the screen, aside from furious kissing.
The film’s reliance on dialogue and voice over to reveal key bits of information is complicated by a litany of sound issues: first, that the sound mixing itself is rather poor, so the characters’ words aren’t very clear; and second, that “Live by Night” takes place during the melting pot era of immigration, but before the actual melting itself — the wildly varying accents are strong and it takes work to adjust as rapidly as the screenplay demands. And Affleck’s camera, in those heavy-dialogue scenes, has little sense of placement. Every cut is a distraction, slightly off-putting, which can increase tension but decreases comprehension.
Ben Affleck, whose directorial work to date has been a success, is just not as great of an actor. His voice, a monotonous extended vocal fry adorned with a strangely somewhat modern Boston accent, delivers lines reliably but with no emotional support or sense of spontaneity. There’s nothing that feels truly alive in the film, albeit beautifully rendered.
There is something special about this film, though. At those few moments when ’20s cars’ engines are roaring and Tommy guns are blaring, scored by music that sounds like a swarm of bees taking vengeance on a hive heckler, “Live by Night” comes alive. And a sun-soaked gangster-laden Florida on the verge of massive economic expansion mixed with rapidly changing demographics, a strange rarity in cinema history, is enchanting visual candy.