Say hello to the Great Stone Face.
That would be Ben Affleck, playing a gangster named Joe in “Live By Night.” He barely changes expression during the picture’s two hours-plus running time.
That expression is grim. That expression is glum.
His mouth is mostly a straight line, with a slight tightening at the corners to indicate an occasional shift, which is to say a lift, in mood. And then it quickly resets to downbeat and dour.
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The eyes are blankly regarding, pretty much unreadable for the most part.
This gangster business, it’s not a lot of fun.
It’s Prohibition time in dirty old Boston, and rival mobs — Irishmen on one side, Mafiosi on the other — don’t like Joe’s freelance style of of knocking over a bank here and robbing a high-stakes card game there with his personal crew. His mantra is: I belong to no mob, I kiss no hoodlum’s ring. Until assorted beatings and death threats cause him to change his tune and throw in with the Italians.
The Mafia dispatches him to Tampa, Florida, to oversee their rum-running operations. Down south, Catholic Joe runs afoul of the Klan and the white Protestant civic power structure that treats him with disdain. He answers their disdain with bullets. Tommy gun battles liven up what is otherwise a pretty leaden picture.
Various women cross Joe’s path. There’s the hard-boiled lover (Sienna Miller) of the super-nasty boss of the Irish gang (Robert Glenister), with whom Joe becomes indiscreetly involved. There’s a sultry Cuban beauty (Zoe Saldana), who captures his heart, and there’s a police chief’s troubled young daughter (Elle Fanning), whose crusading, anti-sin stage persona is closely patterned after the charismatic ’20s evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson.
Joe’s relationships with the characters played by Miller and Saldana are supposedly suffused with deep passion, but Affleck is so buttoned up that there’s little detectable heat in his scenes with his female co-stars.
It’s a curious failing. Affleck, who directed and wrote the script, which is based on a novel by Dennis Lehane, has in his past directorial efforts — “Gone Baby Gone,” also based on a Lehane novel, “The Town” and “Argo” — coaxed fully dimensional performances from his various casts. But here everyone plays their roles in a manner that suggests waxwork figures barely brought to life.
They seem like mannequins, but very well-dressed ones. Affleck sports plenty of snappy ’20s fashions, tailored double-breasted suits, often cream-colored, and elegant Borsalino-style fedoras. He’s dressed to kill for sure.
Too bad his movie is so deadly dull.
Live by Night
☆☆ out of 5
Cast: Ben Affleck, Elle Fanning, Brendan Gleeson, Chris Messina, Sienna Miller, Zoe Saldana.
Director: Ben Affleck.
Running time: 2:09.
Rated: R, for strong violence, language throughout, and some sexuality/nudity.