Affleck is ridiculously stoic and unfunny throughout the film, an absurd choice given the freewheeling tale being told. Joe, the son of a respected Boston police captain (Brendan Gleeson), is ripping off the card games of Irish mobster Albert White (Robert Glenister) while secretly romancing White’s girlfriend Emma Gould (Sienna Miller). Affleck, now 44, struggles most with the youthful exuberance of the film’s first act, where Joe is an upstart in a crime world defined by ethnic conflict. Though Irish, he earns his stripes by allying with the Mafia and going to war with White. The film depicts Joe as the kind of leader who can win over his enemies with his charm, but there’s not much evidence of that in Affleck’s flat performance.
After burning his bridges in Boston, Joe ends up running the Mafia’s emergent operation in Tampa, where he tries to untangle a net of power structures, including the immigrant Cuban rum operations and the insidious Ku Klux Klan, whose members occupy a slew of political positions across the state. Lehane’s more recent books are intrigued by the levels of government, legal and illegal, present in America’s early 20th century, and the systemic racism they usually enforced. Novels like The Given Day and Live by Night are not mere crime thrillers; they’re also attempts to flesh out what America’s underworld reflect in its legitimate political power structures.
It’s easy to see why Affleck was drawn to the book (he wrote the screenplay himself, a first for him), but Live by Night might have been more suited to a blown-out television miniseries. There’s the constant feeling that captivating moments are being glossed over as Joe seizes control of the Florida rum industry. Affleck’s best film remains his feature debut, 2007’s fantastic neo-noir Gone Baby Gone, which was also adapted from a Lehane novel. But that was a much simpler potboiler—a pair of private eyes solving a straightforward mystery (it also featured Affleck’s brother Casey in the lead role, rather than Ben himself). Lehane’s interests have since deepened, as have Affleck’s, but Live by Night is hampered by a 129-minute running time; it feels choppy and abridged when it should linger in the details.
For example, Zoe Saldana is given a plum role as Graciella Corrales, a Cuban rum lord whom Joe partners with and eventually marries. But she’s quickly relegated to the role of supportive love interest as the film pivots back to Joe’s battles with the KKK and the Irish mob, who resurface in Miami. There’s a real sense of missed opportunity in her performance. Elle Fanning plays a crucial role as Loretta Figgis, the Tampa sheriff’s daughter who falls into a life of prostitution, is reformed, and then begins to speak out against the legalization of gambling—a key prong in Joe’s takeover of Florida. It’s an arc that should dominate the second half of the film, but instead feels mildly irritating since Affleck doesn’t give her much screen time. The only member of the ensemble who really sticks out is Chris Messina as Joe’s right-hand man Dion, an avuncular, shrunken troll of a sidekick who gives the film a sense of humor its leading man sorely lacks.