'Live by Night'
On a purely technical level, ‘Live by Night’ is probably the finest “film de Ben Affleck” to date. The period gangster melodrama is filled with beauty shots and carefully crafted costumes and eye-grabbing locations and bursts of grand violence. It’s also his sloppiest film as a storyteller, struggling to cram as much of Dennis Lehane’s sprawling novel into a two hour running time as possible.
The movie is filled with events and characters, but little emotion or purpose. ‘Live by Night’ is a big beautiful machine that seems to be filled with promise until it sputters out toward the end, limping across the finish line in a state of utter exhaustion. It’s a shame because you can sense that there was a bigger, better, longer movie in here somewhere. Maybe it existed in a three-hour form at one point. Maybe it was only ever in Affleck’s head. Either way, this is far from the great movie that it strives to be and often feels like a downright bad one.
The plot follows Joe Coughlin (Affleck), a WWI veteran turned Boston hoodlum. He has a little gang and makes a little money. His father (Brendan Gleeson) is a police boss with a firm moral code who doesn’t care for his son’s illegal shenanigans. Joe has also fallen in love with the girlfriend (Sienna Miller) of local crime boss Albert White (Robert Glenister). As you can imagine, that’s not going to end well. It doesn’t, and that’s barely the prologue.
Coughlin then disappears to prison for a few years and emerges determined to get revenge on White. He makes a pact with a competing crime boss and is sent down to Tampa to set up a Prohibition rum-running operation. It works like gangbusters. He befriends the local police chief (Chris Cooper) who admires his honesty. He also falls in love with Zoe Saldana, whose wealthy Cuban family is the key to the operation. Then Coughlin runs into trouble with the local KKK and, believe it or not, the story is still only getting started. Betrayals, blackmail and slippery moral slopes follow, all leading up to a shockingly sappy finale.
As usual, Affleck has written the script for this directorial effort, but this time he did so without any other credited screenwriting partner and that’s where the problems begin. The guy is so enamored with Dennis Lehane’s source novel that he seems to be completely unwilling to cut or condense any of the material in the book. As a result, the movie has an endlessly episodic plot structure. Anytime it feels like the story might be inching toward a climax, closure or resolution, it’s merely setting up the next long storyline or collection of characters. The individual episodes hold a certain amount of interest, but it’s hard not to get fatigued by the endless repetition of lessons regarding family betrayal, the challenges of maintaining a moral code in a corrupt industry, and that old “crime don’t pay” stuff. These aren’t bad themes; it’s just exhausting to be endlessly hit over the head with them, you know?
At least Affleck shows off some craftsmanship. The movie looks very pretty and feels grand. He doesn’t have a particularly distinct filmmaking voice or style, but he knows how to mount a big period production (even if the costumes often feel awkwardly overdone and far too clean). That bodes well for his inevitable Batman movie, provided the guy gets a screenplay worth shooting. He also cast the film very well, filling it with interesting faces and presences who can imbue even small roles with considerable character. Veteran character actors like Brendan Gleeson and Chris Cooper shine in roles that they’ve essentially done before, so they have no problem cramming more character than their limited screen time should allow. Elle Fanning steals scenes (which she’s getting extremely good at in general) as a lost girl turned voice-of-god with quiet authority. The performances are all as sturdy as the technical achievements, if often feeling just as perfunctory.
Sadly, the worst performance of the lot comes from Affleck himself. He feels uncomfortably miscast as a troubled criminal struggling to maintain his dignity in the underworld. He plays the role as a blank slate when it needs to be seething with conflict beneath the surface. It’s a shame Affleck didn’t just stay behind the camera and let someone else take the lead. (That definitely would have helped during a few awkward action scenes in which Affleck limited his screen time to inserts and body doubles to let the production team fill in the rest of the storyboards while he worked elsewhere.) I suppose lending his face to the poster also got him the budget he needed, but it’s too bad someone more appropriate like Michael Fassbender couldn’t step into the lead role, because this exact troubled movie would have been much better with a stronger lead.
It’s not as if ‘Live by Night’ is a complete disaster. It’s often quite good in its attempts to mount a smoldering period gangster epic. However, it’s clear that everyone was striving for far more than mere adequacy and that makes it tough to see the film fall so short so often. It also doesn’t help that by far the worst stretch is the last twenty minutes, which will send viewers out of the theater with the sourest possible taste in their mouths. This is undoubtedly the worst film that Ben Affleck has directed, but it’s far from the worst thing he’s appeared in. The man has talent as a filmmaker; he just needs to become a better storyteller and stop feeling the need to prove that he’s a triple threat. Part of the reason that ‘Gone Baby Gone’ remains Affleck’s best directorial effort is the fact that he let his brother Casey take the lead role. He should do that more often.