With Good Will Hunting, Gone Baby Gone, and The Town, Ben Affleck proved that he can write great films. And with Gone Baby Gone, The Town, and Argo, he showed that he can direct great movies. Live by Night demonstrates that he’s also capable of writing and directing some not-so-great films.
Joe Coughlin (played by Affleck) is a career criminal, much to the dismay of his police officer father (Brendan Gleeson). He lives in Prohibition-era Boston, a town ruled by gangsters, but he doesn’t want any part of the gangster life. And yet he’s stupid enough to be fooling around with Emma (Sienna Miller), who just happens to be the girlfriend of gangster boss Albert White (Robert Glenister). They plan to run away together to California after Joe pulls off one more big heist, but things are not meant to be. The heist goes bad, and some cops get killed. Plus, Albert finds out about Joe and Emma. Fortunately for Joe, the cops show up to arrest him before the mob can do any serious damage to him, but then they beat him to within an inch of his life before throwing him in jail for a few years. Emma isn’t as lucky.
When Joe gets out (considerably earlier than he otherwise would have, thanks to his father’s intervention), he wants revenge against Albert. Albert has been pushed out of Boston by a rival gang and is now running things down in Miami. Joe joins up with that rival gang, gets himself sent to nearby Tampa, and does his best to run things for his boss while plotting against Albert.
Live by Night is a film that tries really hard to be Miller’s Crossing. But trying is not enough. It’s got good people (the cast also includes Chris Messina, Zoe Saldana, Chris Cooper, Elle Fanning, and several others you’ll recognize by face if not by name), and I suppose the acting is good enough, but the story is just all over the place. It takes forever to set up its stupid premise, and even longer to decide how it wants to end. Along the way, there are far too many distractions from the real plot. There may be a decent 90–100-minute film in there somewhere, but at over two hours, it’s just a chore.