Ben Affleck is a good director, but has yet to prove himself a great one. His first film, 2007's remains his best, and it is no coincidence it's also the only film he has directed in which he does not also have a major role. In 2012, his film Argo won an Oscar for Best Picture, and I enjoyed that one a lot, too, but that was despite his presence as its star, and not because of it.
Affleck the director and star is back with Live By Night, and once again he gives us a movie that's good — sometimes quite good — but never great.
Set in the 1920s and 30s, it's a gangster saga centered on Joe Coughlin (Affleck), a World War I veteran turned criminal who has no desire to join the Irish gang headed by Albert White (Robert Glenister). Despite his Irish heritage and penchant for crime, Coughlin's wary of pledging his allegiance to just one outfit...but does pledge his allegiance to White's moll Emma Gould (Sienna Miller), as they conduct an affair behind the mob boss's back until White gets wise and tries to kill them both.
After a stint in jail, Joe has revenge against White on his mind, and decides to side with the head of Boston's Italian gang, Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone). Pescatore sends Joe and his pal Dion (Chris Messina) down to Tampa, Florida, with the intent of crushing White's stronghold on the rum-running biz.
Once there, Joe teams up with a brother and sister team from Cuba, who supply the molasses needed to make the rum. He falls in love with the sister, Graciella (Zoe Saldana), and as his empire grows he also must deal with the KKK and the local sheriff (Chris Cooper), who does his best to turn a blind eye to it all, until his daughter Loretta (Elle Fanning), is used as leverage.
While Affleck may be a bit blind when it comes to his own acting abilities, he does have a gift for directing others. Everyone in the film gives a great performance. Sienna Miller's moll has a refreshing lack of vanity, and isn't afraid to look or be ugly. Chris Cooper, who has mastered the strong, silent, lawman type, has some great moments when that facade breaks. And Chris Messina, who gained about 40 pounds for the role, is such a natural at the Italian mobster thing, I'm surprised he's avoided typecasting thus far.
But the best scene in the movie features Elle Fanning's born again preacher, Loretta, after she's proven herself a bigger foil to Joe than the gun-wielding thugs trying to topple his empire. As she and Joe talk in an empty diner, Affleck the director wisely focuses tight on her face and her eyes, which reveal more about her secrets than ten minutes of exposition ever could.
Alas, the stellar performances around Affleck only accentuate how hopelessly stiff he is, sometimes literally, as he stands around looking like the cut of his double-breasted suits are one size too small. Joe is supposed to be a mobster with a heart of gold, unwilling to do the real dirty work himself, until forced to. But Affleck is so blank, we never believe his passions, whether it be for the mobster's moll, the Cuban beauty, or for his big dreams of opening a casino.
And while the story is sprawling, covering a decade, and filled with beautiful settings, costumes, and stars, it just never comes together to be the kind of epic crime drama it's emulating. And once again I wonder, had Affleck stayed behind the camera and left the lead acting to someone else, might he have been able to put together a great movie at last?Gone Baby Gone,