Gangster’s paradise: An assured Ben Affleck guides ‘Live by Night’

Glamour and grit work together in Live by Night.

Three and a half stars

Live by Night Ben Affleck, Zoe Saldana, Chris Messina. Directed by Ben Affleck. Rated R. Opens Friday citywide.

For his fourth movie as a director, Ben Affleck returns to the street-level Boston crime of his first two films, once again adapting a novel by Gone Baby Gone author Dennis Lehane. But Live by Night only spends a short amount of time in Affleck’s native Boston, where it opens at the height of Prohibition in the 1920s. Once local criminal Joe Coughlin (Affleck) hooks up with a big-time mob boss, he’s shipped off to southern Florida, where the rest of the movie takes place, and where Boston Irishman Joe eventually builds an empire.

The sprawling Live by Night is a bit episodic, with a story that might be better suited to a TV miniseries than a feature film. But it benefits from Affleck’s increasingly assured direction, with gorgeous, sweeping cinematography by Robert Richardson and a feel for the glamour and the grit of the time period. Affleck is sometimes blank as Joe, but he fills the supporting cast with talent, including Zoe Saldana as Joe’s Cuban wife, Chris Cooper as a conflicted Florida sheriff and Elle Fanning as a haunted young preacher. The gangster storytelling is familiar, but Affleck finds variations in the details, exploring the conflicts between entrenched interests and ambitious immigrants. Even the narrative detours mostly pay off in the end, giving the story a scope greater than its individual parts. It’s a worthy addition to Affleck’s Boston crime canon.

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