In terms of technical skill, “Live by Night” continues director Ben Affleck’s development. There’s many impressively staged and shot scenes. Everything looks great, the costumes, the sets, the colours, it all shows growth from Affleck’s earlier work. Really, it’s the writing more than anything else that was the issue here.
In terms of acting, there’s a big cast with loads of strong character actors (many who’ve already worked with Affleck), but Affleck always falters a bit when there’s not someone else directing himself. His best performances are ones where he’s pushed oddly in a direction he may not have comfortably came to by himself – Kevin Smith pushing him to comic foolishness, David Fincher pushing him to distasteful self-assuredness, Zack Snyder pushing him to enraged impotence. Here, he’s in a role too comfortable and too frequently vindicated. His conflicts are too external.
The vindicative elements of the film are the most interesting. The first act is a standard Boston gangster prohibition film – enjoyable, but workmanlike. The second act is similar but in Florida, yet the recurring appearances of the KKK and Affleck’s character’s somewhat anachronistic progressive social views become an interesting element uncharacteristic to the sort of films Affleck is homaging here. The third act finally embraces these socially conscious elements, and Affleck playing a prohibition gangster with forward-thinking views dispensing gangster justice on racists and the like is a much more novel, interesting film, than the much more standard crime filler the film was for most of its runtime.
It’s far from a bad film, but becoming a much better film in its third act makes the first two acts retroactively look almost like wastes of time. Hopefully Affleck pursues more original, novel directorial work in future, because he seems to shine more when pushing himself beyond his comfort zone – something his acting benefits from as well. I give it three bottles of rum, and a fine collection of hats.