As a director, Ben Affleck’s best known for his Best Picture-winner Argo. In terms of his acting career, he’s perhaps more recently gained notoriety as the big screen Batman. And it’s this inner tug of war between marquee marketability and artistic risk-taking that’s perhaps most notable in his latest acting / directing project, Live By Night.
Affleck stars as Joe Coughlin, an Irish thug who becomes a Florida kingpin. We follow Coughlin from his roots robbing banks in Boston to running prohibition-era liquor in Tampa.
Doomed love and cursed crime partnerships face him at every turn. The film ultimately lacks the scope to tell Coughlin’s story with proper consideration but is polished with an admirable technical sheen.
Sadly, this all adds up to something that could’ve been a profound achievement yet has to settle for being an admirable misfire. Live By Night isn’t an embarrassment by any means and it certainly has enough quality elements to maintain interest (sidenote: see it in a theater with a quality sound system, my screening’s sound sorely lacked the emphasis that could propel certain moments to a more jolting level of engagement).
The representation of the story lacks depth or any real hook; if Joe were more interesting we could all go along with it his subjective gangster tale a ‘la Goodfellas. Instead we’re left with undercooked characters and plot points that feel vaguely related but consistently unconnected. It’s dress-up Goodfellas more than it’s a Cuban-tinged crime epic.
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Through the crowds of character actor performances in the film, it’s obvious the director’s favourite star is his own damn self. Live By Night isn’t a vanity project per se, but it is a bit too preoccupied with its star’s appearances than making Joe Coughlin a believably well-rounded character.
Also as in The Town, Affleck finds the time to work in some sex scenes between his character and the two loves of his life at different points in the story. He certainly maintains the expected Hollywood romantic subplot; Zoe Saldana is an exceptional actress, but hats off to whomever can correctly identify the accent she was aiming for here.
Unexpectedly, relative small-timer Chris Messina (from TV/The Internet’s The Mindy Project) steals the entire movie at every given opportunity as Joe’s right hand man. Messina gives the liveliest performance amongst a largely energy-free cast.
Elle Fanning is turning out to be an ingénue to watch, but her character as a police chief’s daughter-turned-blackmail-object-turned-evangelist is underserved. The actress puts her all into every moment she’s afforded but it’s all for naught, unfortunately. Instead of being sucked in to her subplot we’re just puzzled as to why we’re watching it in the first place.
The film’s technical craft is on point. Costumes, sets, and essentially all production design elements are undeniably top-notch. For all the film’s shortcomings in the storytelling department there is an awful lot of redeeming production qualities to boost it.
Credit has to be given where its due and I’ll be goddamned if Ben Affleck can’t shoot an electric, intense, and expertly staged action sequence. The climatic shootout is as perfunctory and perfectly timed as anything you’d see in a Hollywood “prestige” picture.
You’ll know it when you see it and it’s a sequence deserving of an altogether better movie. Affleck knows how to make violence feel real and, at times, scary. It’s a welcome change of pace from the consequence free shoot ’em ups we’re used to at the multiplex.
What else works? Very little, including Affleck’s dreadful voice over, which has the uncanny ability to suck the energy out of any given transition. Without having read the novel by Dennis Lehane upon which Live By Night is based I can’t fairly postulate towards the source material’s plotting and the ratio of what ends up being represented in this thankfully brief 128-minute runtime.
If Affleck (who wrote the screenplay by himself) was trying to stay too true to the source material then he maybe could’ve used an outsider’s perspective on how to shape the original story into an effective screen story.
Without reading too much into speculation of the trials and tribulations that likely existed behind the scenes – as they would with any production – it’s safe to say that Live By Night feels pretty unfocused. It’s almost as if its triumvirate thespian had other things on his mind, like a public divorce and the weight of anchoring a major franchise universe as goddamn Batman himself. The man could’ve used some breathing room, time, reflection, and maybe even a different leading man.
Affleck can also write dense yet sparse dialogue and as a director he’s got a confident visual eye. The compositions here are glorious at times and the cinematography transcends the material more often than not.
With more focus and the murdering of some screenplay darlings this could’ve turned out to be a worthy entry into Affleck’s directing filmography. He’s capable of so much more, and will do so much more, but the movie’s an unfortunate sidestep nonetheless.
Live By Night isn’t cohesive or engaging enough to recommend for a satisfying evening of entertainment. As its driving creative force, Ben Affleck should’ve been afforded the luxury of time and space to let the film fall into place organically. One just hopes we don’t have to wait until the end of Affleck’s Batman period for the writer-director-actor to return to the heights of Gone Baby Gone and The Town.
Two out of five!
‘Live By Night’ is rated R and now playing everywhere. Running time 128 minutes.