'Live by Night' Review: Ben Affleck's Old-School Gangster Film Chokes on Ambition

The writer-director-star's overloaded take on Cagney-era crime flicks has enough material in it for a half-dozen movies

'Live by Night' finds Ben Affleck taking on Cagney-era gangster movies – Peter Travers on why this overambitious homage should have been a miniseries. Credit: Claire Folger

Ben Affleck's tribute to old-school Warner brothers gangster pictures may lack the white heat of the Cagney-Bogart era, but Live By Night still gets in its stylish licks. The actor started his impressive directing career in 2007 by bringing Dennis Lehane's Gone, Baby Gone to the screen. Now, after adding The Town and the Oscar-winning Argo to his resumé, he returns to Lehane by taking on the second book in the Boston-based author's acclaimed trilogy about Joe Coughlin, the son of a Beantown police captain who turns to organized crime in the Prohibition era. Affleck is the screenwriter, producer, director and star – he's all in, and the film often runs aground on its (and his) sweeping ambitions, following its antihero's rise in the northeast to his empire building in both Tampa, Florida and Havana, Cuba. There’s enough here for half a dozen movies, and you can feel the severe overcrowding. But you can't keep your eyes off it.

As with the other films he's directed, Affleck gives the juiciest roles to his costars. (Remember Amy Ryan in Gone, Baby, Gone, Jeremy Renner in The Town and Alan Arkin for Argo? Each got Oscar nominations for their work.) And in Live By Night, a choice cast lines up to the plate. Sienna Miller is a knockout as Emma Gould, the mistress of an Irish mob boss (Robert Glenister). Messing around with her is a big mistake for Joe; even his cop daddy (the reliably riveting Brendan Gleeson) can't help him. So he ties up with the Italian mob, led by Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone), who sends him to Florida where he can muscle in on White's operation.

That also means getting cozy with Graciela Suarez (Zoe Saldana); Joe needs to win away her Cuban family from White and get them on board the bootlegging operation he runs with his buddy (Chris Messina). Enter Chris Cooper, a standout as Irving Figgis, a God-fearing local sheriff who looks the other way when it comes Prohibition. The lawman's only concern is his daughter Loretta (Elle Fanning, quite touching), a good girl with her eye on making it big in Hollywood. That's trouble right there, and if you're thinking prostitution and porn is just around the corner, you wouldn't be wrong. In fact, why not throw in religious conversion and zealotry to boot? As if that weren't enough, Joe has the KKK to contend with – the white-sheet brigade, run by Figgis’ brother-in-law (Matthew Maher) – doesn't cotton to our man's true love for the dark-skinned Graciela.

Are you still with me? I haven't even mentioned the switch from rum-running to gambling and how that messes up Joe's plans, in addition to bringing in Pescatore's interfering idiot son (Max Casella). The good news is that this leads to a massive shootout, which the director stages so excitingly you wish the rest of the movie could measure up. As an actor, Affleck maintains a square-jawed Batman look that works against investing in the mobster's emotional arc, even if the take on the character as more of an observer than participant in his own life is built into Lehane's original conception. The feeling persists that the material would have cut deeper as a miniseries worthy of binge-watching. Still, Live by Night looks amazing (a tip of fedora to cinematographer Robert Richardson), and Affleck shines as a director of actors and action. The man knows how to create a haunting gangster noir worth getting lost in.