Ben Affleck finally directs a dud with 'Live by Night'

Ben Affleck and Sienna Miller

Ben Affleck and Sienna Miller Claire Folger

Ben Affleck’s second act in Hollywood began with a pleasant surprise: The star of Gigli can direct.

Gone Baby Gone saw the on-the-ropes actor step behind the camera and, perhaps unintentionally, make a case for himself as being better on that side than he is in front of it. The fact that his brother Casey was so magnetic in the film — and even more so in the same year’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford — only underscored the effect.

Affleck seemed to get more careful from there, being relatively choosey with his acting gigs and taking the lead role in his sophomore effort, the equally worthwhile The Town. Perhaps emboldened by this and his subsequent successes — namely winning the Academy Award for Best Picture with Argo — it would appear he’s become less careful. Affleck played the Caped Crusader in last year’s woeful Batman v Superman and now, with Live by Night, has also directed his first misfire.

Adapted from the Dennis Lehane novel of the same name (as was Gone Baby Gone), the film is two different stories struggling to form a complete narrative. All the right parts are there, each one so slightly out of place that, when looking at them all together, it’s difficult to pinpoint what’s actually wrong.

Affleck plays a World War I vet who, disillusioned by what he saw in the trenches, grows wary of taking orders from self-appointed authority figures and turns to a life of crime upon returning to Boston.

The early scenes, which see him shacking up with an Irish crime boss’ moll (Sienna Miller), are where Live by Night hits its stride — and where it would have done well to linger for a while longer. Affleck’s world-weariness is in keeping with the Prohibition era’s criminal element, here represented by a shadowy war between Italian and Irish gangsters. He exists in a sort of no-man’s land between the two camps, reluctant to kiss the ring and fully commit to either side.

His hand is eventually forced when his illicit love affair is found out. While musing about the life she and her beau might lead after he commits one last heist and they head out west, Miller’s femme fatale speaks the title aloud by omission: “sleep by night.” It’s a beautiful dream that, like most in the film, will never be realized.

From there the film becomes a sort of sunshine noir, shifting the action to Florida as Affleck becomes an emissary of the Italians. The long arm of the law has yet to reach every corner of Tampa, and though the postcard-pretty areas can lay claim to dolphins, everywhere else has alligators. Bob Richardson’s cinematography brings out the dark beauty in the light and shadow alike.

Affleck’s on-the-nose narration (“The rules we had lived by were lies, and they didn’t apply to those that made them”) does the film no favors, though the supporting actors do: Chris Messina, Elle Fanning, Zoe Saldana, and Chris Cooper all give lived-in, authentic performances that enrich the period milieu.

As an aspiring actress-turned-revival preacher, Fanning in particular gives voice to the film’s worldview more clearly than anyone — or anything — else. She’s seen what unchecked ambition can lead to, ditto good intentions, and she looks up to the heavens like a worshipper who knows she’ll never enter its gates.

As this woman of faith stands in the way of Affleck’s burgeoning empire, he naturally tries to dissuade her of her fire-and-brimstone views. But she won’t budge. He may have seen war, but she’s seen hell. Nearly everyone in Live by Night is doomed to eventually share in her vision, whether they know it or not.

Live by Night
Directed by Ben Affleck
Opens Friday, area theaters