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Live by Night

Ben Affleck's journey as a filmmaker has been intrinsically linked to Boston, where he grew up and caught the acting bug. His first screenplay, the Oscar-winning drama Good Will Hunting, co-written by best friend Matt Damon, was set in the densely populated south of the city. When he eventually strayed behind the camera, Affleck's first two features were the gripping Gone Baby Gone based on the novel by Bostonian Dennis Lehane and the edge-of-seat thriller The Town about a group of bank robbers from the city's Charlestown neighbourhood. So it comes as no surprise that his first directorial outing since he won the Oscar for Argo, a crowd-pleasing valentine to Hollywood, should be a stylish Prohibition-era crime saga set partly in Boston and adapted from another pulpy novel by Lehane. Live By Night harks back to an impeccably tailored era of gangsters, molls and bullet-riddled massacres, when everyone has a dirty secret to hide. "Vice, it seemed, was Depression-proof," observes Affleck's lead character early in the film, setting the scene for two hours of alcohol-sodden and sex-fuelled excess. Boston police captain Thomas Coughlin (Brendan Gleeson) raises his son Joe (Affleck) to follow the path of righteousness. Alas, Joe suffers deep emotional scars during the First World War, where he witnesses senseless slaughter at the behest of high-ranking officers. "Good men died all around me and I saw no reason for it," comments Joe in voiceover. He returns to Boston with an aversion to authority and robs banks with his buddy Dion (Chris Messina). "What you put out into the world will always come back to you... but never as you expect," Thomas warns his son, to no avail. Joe initiates a passionate affair with Emma Gould (Sienna Miller), mistress of sadistic Irish mob boss Albert White (Robert Glenister), and plunders without thought of the consequences. When one of the heists goes spectacularly awry, Joe heads to Florida to do the bidding of Italian crime boss Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone). In new surroundings, Joe bootlegs Cuban rum and falls under the spell of nightclub siren Graciella Corrales (Zoe Saldana). He is also drawn to aspiring starlet Loretta (Elle Fanning), daughter of God-fearing sheriff Irving Figgis (Chris Cooper). Past and present collide on the sunbaked east coast and Joe must confront the sins of his inglorious past. Live By Night is a blast of stagnant air from the past, which treats female characters as baubles to be draped over the arms of swaggering men. The body count in breathlessly staged shootouts is extremely high. Affleck's script doesn't glamorise violence, but it certainly lionises his amoral lead character, who glides serenely from misfortune to full-blown disaster while those around him are riddled with bullets. As an architect of relentless doom, he's an exceedingly dull and unsympathetic fellow.