Ben Affleck is apparently at war with Ben Affleck. It is rare to come across someone with such gifts as both an actor and a director who struggles so much when it comes to directing himself as an actor. The new “Live by Night” finds him pulled in so many conflicting directions that what he ends up with is neither elegantly concise nor an epic sprawl, but rather something just awkwardly misshapen.
“Live by Night” finds Affleck wearing the hats of director, star, screenwriter and producer, and in this case those hats are the snappy fedoras of a Prohibition-era gangster picture. An adaptation of a novel by Dennis Lehane — as was Affleck’s grimy 2007 directorial debut, “Gone Baby Gone” — the movie is about a Boston criminal sent to Florida to oversee a rum-running enterprise.
Affleck plays Joe Coughlin, a self-identified outlaw who after the story’s early passages in Boston leaves for Tampa, partly as personal exile to escape memories of a lost love (Sienna Miller) but also to move up the gangster’s ladder of success. Aided by an old running buddy (Chris Messina), soon Joe is the kingpin of the local underworld. He takes up with a Cuban woman (Zoe Saldana) and works hard to keep his business growing until his past comes back in unexpected ways.
The movie is handsomely mounted with upscale production values, but it feels sluggish and disjointed. The storytelling has an episodic quality, as if one were binge-watching some new television series rather than a single cohesive narrative. The episode in Boston? Pretty good, with quite a car chase. The one where he battles the KKK in Florida? A bit corny. The spooky one about the female tent-revival preacher? That one’s a favorite.
An additional front for the film’s internal battles is Affleck the screenwriter. The adaption of “Live by Night” is Affleck’s first solo screenwriting credit, and he struggles to properly blend the novel’s mix of character detail alongside the scope of its broader story. Affeck discards a subplot from the book on gunrunning for Cuban rebels, focusing on the strictly gangster business of robbing, rum and gambling. There are hints at deeper currents, those clashes with the local KKK and an ongoing sense that people are always finding ways to keep themselves apart, be it through race, religion or heritage, but those ideas remain on the fringes.
Affleck the actor is taciturn, coming across as neither a roguish charmer nor a bad-man antihero, so that the character feels unnecessarily remote and inaccessible. Affleck’s best performances have been for other directors, as in “Gone Girl” or “Hollywoodland,” where he excels at playing a man just smart enough to realize how much of a dumb sap he truly is. That air of pained self-recognition is nowhere to be found in the performances he has given in his own films, in “The Town,” “Argo” or here, as he allows himself to veer toward the maudlin and self-pitying.
He gets much better performances out of his supporting cast. Elle Fanning gives a haunting turn as a young woman who transforms herself into a pious revival preacher after being rescued from a disastrous time out West, the subject of the film’s most evocative line: “She didn’t make it to Hollywood, she just made it to Los Angeles.” Messina brings an enthusiasm missing elsewhere, and Miller makes a strong impression with little screen time. Though Saldana’s Cuban accent can come and go, she provides a calm counterpoint to the chaos of Joe’s work.
“Live by Night” is the first film Affleck has directed since making “Argo,” which won the Oscar for best picture, and the new project’s appeal is understandable. It has the trappings of a proper old-fashioned movie, although the classic pictures its name invokes, like Nicholas Ray’s “They Live by Night” or Raoul Walsh’s “They Drive by Night,” were actually far grubbier, tougher films than this.
Robert Richardson’s moody photography, Jacqueline West’s glamorous costume work and Jess Gonchor’s detailed production design create a vivid sense of time and place — a few street scenes teem with an evocative energy, like snapshots of an era gone by. But it’s in pulling it all together, in combining storytelling, performance and pacing, where the film falters.
With “Live by Night” Affleck proves that sometimes more really can be less, as the film comes off as a half-hearted shrug rather than an ambitious stretch. The most obvious predecessor to Affleck’s combination of director, actor, producer, screenwriter and stardom is Warren Beatty. Yet Beatty has always seemed — even recently with the idiosyncratic “Rules Don’t Apply” — to understand himself, to bring the best out of himself and also to enjoy himself in ways that Affleck here simply does not.
The moody contrition of his recent run as Batman seem to be fitting him more and more. Maybe Affleck the filmmaker, Affleck the actor and Affleck the star will eventually be reconciled in one film. Perhaps then Ben Affleck can again be at peace with Ben Affleck.
‘Live by Night’
Rating: R for strong violence, language throughout and some sexuality/nudity
Opening: Christmas Day
Running Time: 2 hour, 8 minutes
Playing: The Arclight Hollywood, The Landmark, West Los Angeles