Ben Affleck wrote, directed and stars in this retelling of a crime novel by Denis Lehane, who also wrote the source material for Affleck's directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone. That book provided Affleck with a compact narrative to weave into a solid neo-noir detective story. In ten years Ben Affleck has been directing movies, he has shown a rare ability to choose projects artfully and wisely, hitting creative and commercial growth rings with each new outing. He already has a sterling track record, which is why I am far from alone in stepping up to a new Ben Affleck movie with a tingle of anticipation.
Sienna Miller, outfitted in fabulous flapper chic makes a lively impression as a woman accustomed to using her sexual power to mask feelings of class inferiority, and the movie leaves you wanting a lot more of her. Ben Affleck is focused, sharp and looks great in those creamy period suits.
His character, Joe, can be ruthless when he needs to but never does anything that shocks us. Here's the thing about Joe: for all his Mob rules he is really an upstanding guy who wants his cut, wants everyone to be happy and hasn't stopped looking for love. A movie gangster can - and should - be a morally complex figure; it is not like they all have to be Tony Montana. Ben Affleck has tried to craft a moral tale of a gangster's journey, but what that comes down to is that he is telling the story of a vicious man who is actually a Boy Scout. Moreover, Affleck is an amazing actor but I really do believe that he is at his best onscreen listening to others. When we can study his face as he reacts to the situation around him.
Though Live by Night works on a much larger scale, Affleck struggles to constrain its story into 130-minutes runtime. Resulting, some sequences seem heavily condensed, like Joe's early days in Boston and his doomed affair with the girlfriend of another gangster. This romance has an enormous impact on Joe's life but Affleck doesn't have enough time to let it amount to much.
The key word of this film is episodes, as the movie wanders from one incident and set of characters to the next. When Ben Affleck ties them together, the playoff justifies some of the proceedings journeys. All of the points are here but the details and connective tissue that would give those plot points their emotional weight appear to have been left on the cutting room floor. Finally, the glossy old school Hollywood vibe is impressive, as are the costumes, props and sets. The cinematography by Robert Richardson, who shot Aviator and Django Unchained among other films and always delivers in movies with period settings.
Overall Live by Night is solid enough entertainment. It is also very meticulously engineered but it lacks the nearly nasty edge or narrative muscularity to make it memorable.