Words: Chris Neill
The last 12 months have been rough for Ben Affleck. He’s had to suffer through the embarrassment of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, the overwhelming whatever-ness of The Accountant and his new status as a kind of funny Internet meme. While the announcement that he’s helming the new solo Batman movie bodes well for the Dark Knight’s cinematic future, he now he has rabid comic nerds crawling up his arse screaming, “When’s Batman?” every hour of every day. The man just needs to catch a break, something he can chalk up as a win. Unfortunately, his new crime feature Live By Night isn’t it.
Set during Prohibition, Affleck plays Joe Coughlin, the son of a Boston police captain, who returns from the First World War to a life of crime – or in his own words, “I went away a soldier, I came home an outlaw.” When Coughlin’s affair with a gangster’s mistress leads to her death, he agrees to work with a rival Mafia boss to exact revenge. If this mountain of clichés already feels overwhelming, I’ve got some bad news: this is only the first half-hour of the film.
Live By Night is an average film. It’s the kind of middle of the road movie you struggle to find enjoyment in, be it ironically or otherwise. But this mediocrity is amplified by the fact that Affleck has proven himself to be a genuinely talented director. Gone Baby Gone and The Town are some of the best crime films of the last decade, and while Argo probably didn’t deserve the Academy Award for Best Picture, it’s still a solid movie. The difference between the Affleck who directed those films, and the Affleck who directed this is as clear as night and day.
You get the impression that Affleck wanted Live By Night to be a gangster epic along the lines of Scarface or Goodfellas. But unlike Tony Montana and Henry Hill, there’s barely any difference between the Coughlin we see at the start of the film and the one see at the end. Affleck just drifts sleepily from scene to scene, until the movie is over. He reads every line in an exhausted monotone, and lacks any chemistry with the rest of the cast. His relationship with Zoe Saldana’s character doesn’t feel natural; it just happens and we’re forced to accept it (Saldana turns in a decent performance, but like everything else in this film it’s nothing to get excited about).
Affleck adapted the screenplay from Dennis Lehane’s novel of the same name, which I haven’t read; so I don’t if it’s overwhelming use of crime clichés are fully his fault. Every second line in some groan-inducing piece of gangster philosophy: “You realize to be free in this life, breaking the rules meant nothing. You have to be strong enough to make your own”, “Powerful men don’t have to be cruel.” It’s all dumb tough-guy posturing that comes across as embarrassing instead of cool.
Live By Night isn’t all bad though. A car chase early on in the film is genuinely thrilling, along with a large scale shoot out that occurs at the tail end of the film. The film also looks fantastic, thanks to cinematographer Robert Richardson. There’s a moment where Affleck and his crew are boating down some Tampa rivers that is beautifully shot, with the sunset’s pastel colours reflecting off the water. Richardson has previously work with Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese, but knowing this makes you wish Live By Night had half the energy or edge of those directors.
There are some genuinely interesting story ideas in there – Coughlin’s empire is threatened by the KKK who have a strong influence in the area; a young girl (played by Elle Fanning) that Coughlin saves later returns as an evangelical who incites a powerful movement to condemn everything Coughlin peddles. Affleck choses to take the less interesting route every chance he gets. He tries to stuff too much in, never letting anything breathe or command the presence he wants. Working with clichés isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but when your story is full to the brim with them, it’s really hard to give a shit. You’ve seen it all before, and done better too. Plot lines continually end without any impact (This might make the movie’s pacing sound rushed, but it feels at least an hour longer than it actually is). There are few late game twists, that I imagine were supposed to be shocking but they’re greeted with an indifferent shrug at best.
There is a good movie somewhere in Live By Night – one with an engaging plot and characters you actually care about. It’s very obvious just how thin Affleck was spreading himself. It probably would’ve benefitted the film as a whole had he cast someone else in the lead role, giving him more time to focus on its direction. Affleck has already proven himself as a good, possibly even great, director and this just goes to show that even talented directors can mess up sometimes. Hopefully Live By Night is just a one-off misstep and not a vision of what’s to come.