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film review

Elle Fanning and Ben Affleck star in Live by Night.Claire Folger

At the climax of Live by Night there is a fabulous gun battle in an old Miami hotel. Prohibition will soon end, and Tampa's chief rum runners are having a little disagreement with their masters in the Boston mob about what will come next. Bullets fly, ornate light fixtures crash to the ground and bodies flip over the delicate wrought-iron railings of the grand staircase. Of course, the good guys – that is, the group of bad guys we are rooting for – will win, and nobody cares how much blood from secondary characters gets shed in the process.

If only they still made gangster movies like this. But that glorious bloodbath aside, contemporary liberal sentiments keep getting in the way of Live by Night, which starts to drag badly just moments before Ben Affleck, its director, writer and lead, suddenly springs this classic scene on us. Trouble is the busy star, who adapted a novel by Dennis Lehane (Shutter Island and Mystic River), has made the mistake of thinking he can direct both the film and himself in the main role – and has oversized ambitions for the project that have to be carried entirely by his own performance.

The plot is a satisfying pot-boiler, but darn it if Affleck doesn't want these melodramatic lives to carry meaning, too. He takes as his theme honour among thieves and sets out to establish Joe Coughlin, the Boston bank robber turned Florida mobster, as a reluctant criminal, an outlaw rather than a gangster. The action, which follows Coughlin from a startling double-cross in a swanky Boston hotel to the speakeasies and gin mills of Tampa, is good fun, but the notion that the man is somehow interesting or admirable as he struggles to remain true to his personal code is a stretch. In one particularly gothic plot twist, Elle Fanning plays a tortured born-again Christian campaigning against Coughlin's proposed casino; their scenes discussing her desperate beliefs provide some of the few moments in which the man's moral quest actually takes hold.

Elsewhere, the dialogue often sounds a little too modern while the characters' sentiments are definitely anachronistic. The unusual 1930s multicultural setting – the Cubans run the liquor, the Protestants run the clan – provides great colour, but the repeated ethnic slurs and pointed explanations of social hierarchies among the Boston Irish and the Florida Latinos feel forced, a case of these fish being unnaturally aware of the water in which they swim.

Affleck looks good peering out from under the brim of a Panama hat and he does successfully hint at the calculating intelligence behind Coughlin's tough demeanour, adding a nice element of suspense to his various feints and countermoves. It's the softer stuff that comes out of nowhere and ends in bathos. His character eventually shacks up with a mulatto Cubana, who runs a profitable trade in molasses, a key ingredient in his rum, but both his eventual marriage to Graciela and his battle with the KKK often feel like a contemporary gloss on the rough-and-tumble character. Initially intriguing as the fiery Cuban businesswoman, Zoe Saldana fades into the wicker furniture as Coughlin's happy lover and increasingly staid wife. She eventually decides she wants to open a home for abandoned women and children.

Centred on an uxorious guy who is building a gambling palace, Live by Night invites unfortunate comparisons with Martin Scorsese's 1995 classic Casino, in which the hero is tortured by his dishonest business and his unstable wife. Of course, Affleck isn't Robert De Niro – delivering what was probably the last great dramatic role of his career – and Chris Messina as Coughlin's rather bland sidekick most definitely isn't Joe Pesci. Still, it's a fair and revealing comparison because of the strong reminder the right director and actor can make the trials of an utterly criminal character highly sympathetic without suggesting that a made man could fetch up in a women's shelter. Here, the outlaw-as-hero trick just doesn't work; we can't both sympathize with Coughlin's moral quandaries and thrill to his crimes. Early in the film, Graciela tells him she doubts he is cruel enough to do his job. Maybe she's right. Certainly, Affleck isn't cruel enough to do his.