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Ben Affleck's 'Live By Night' Is a Lax Effort at Making Sense of Complex Ideas

Ben Affleck and Sienna Miller in Live by Night (2016)

Live by Night is good at era-appropriate garb, but its adaptation of Dennis Lehane's story lacks anything remotely close to sizzle or scope.

Live By Night

Director: Ben Affleck
Cast: Ben Affleck, Elle Fanning, Brendan Gleeson
Rated: PG-13
Studio: Warner Bros.
Year: 2016
UK Release Date: 2016-12-25 (General release)
US Release Date: 2016-12-25 (General release)

It should work so much better. After all, you have Oscar winning writer/director Ben Affleck behind the lens and in front of it, again borrowing from his hometown Boston playbook. In that regard, he’s also back at adapting Dennis Lehane, whose work has guided the filmmaker through his amazing debut, Gone Baby Gone, as well providing the basis for other cinematic efforts like The Drop, Shutter Island, and Mystic River.

But for some reason -- actually, for one very noticeable reason -- Affleck’s Live By Night is a dull gangster disappointment. Where it should crackle, it’s clumsy. When it should be brash, it’s disjointed and dumb. perhaps the biggest problem here, among many, is the performance by the man in charge. Clearly still stuck in morose mode ala his turn as the dour Dark Knight in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (which he made before this) and anticipating that character’s Justice League return, Affleck is a bore, a lifeless center to a film that feels incomplete and lacking energy.

Our filmmaker plays Joe Coughlin, the prodigal son of one of Boston's finest (Brendan Gleeson). After returning from battle in World War I, he settles into his hometown digs and begins infiltrating the local mob. He falls for the moll (Sienna Miller) of the Irish mafia's big boss (Robert Glenister) and this makes the Italians mad. They try to recruit him, and when he rejects them, there are consequences. Joe ends up in prison, and when he gets out, he ends up working for the very syndicate that set him up.

They send him to Tampa, where he works for mobster Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone). Again, he falls for a woman (Zoe Saldana) who has connections to the suppliers of illegal booze. He also has a run in with a local sheriff (Chris Cooper) whose daughter (Elle Fanning) is a fire and brimstone evangelist looking to close down Joe's business. Toss in the typical double crosses, the misguided alliances, plenty of period detail, and the KKK, and you've got a movie that can't make up its mind. Is it about redemption or reality? Good vs. evil? Or the complications that come with being a moral criminal?

If that last concept doesn't make sense, that's because Live By Night doesn't understand the inherent lure of the genre. The Godfather may be an epic operatic and dark take on the American Dream, but we don't remember the subtext -- we love that Clemenza the hitman instructs his flunky to leave the gun and take the canollis after a murder. Goodfellas isn't one of the great examples of the type because of its day in the life authenticity. No, it's because, in addition to that, The Godfather has electrifying characters, sharp dialogue, and enough violence to keep our attention.

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Live By Night has none of this. It has no bite. It has no snap. It's good at era-appropriate garb, but its story lacks anything remotely close to sizzle or scope. Now, when the Coen Brothers made Miller's Crossing, they realized that without the trappings of a big studio set-up, they were going to need as much narrative and character help as possible. Lehane's book supposedly has all of this in abundance, but for some reason, Affleck chooses to skip over it. When Joel and Ethan fleshed out their complex plot and curious individuals, greatness ensued. When Live By Night ignored it, we ended up with a slog.

There's no chemistry here. Affleck may be a likeable leading man, but he has no passion with either Miller or Saldana. It's almost as if these relationships were studio mandates for sex appeal. Similarly, Affleck's script scrapes away important clarifications for more shots of antique vehicles chasing around a Florida sunset. We never understand the stakes, never care who might suffer or survive, and feel a distinct lack of involvement with those in front of the lens (and a clear indication that those behind it didn't really care either).

When you think of where Affleck was going at the time he decided to make this movie, it seems like a sensible choice. He was circling a two-part epic telling of Stephen King's classic The Stand, and that would have been rife with possible problems. He then took on the role of Bruce Wayne and his crime fighting alter ego for Zack Snyder, and so impressed the studio suits that they okayed his own stand alone Batman reboot. So Live By Night is a comparatively easier sell. It's an adult awards season entry, with the kind of crime family familiarity that's come to define the genre.

Yet, Affleck fails. His movie looks amazing, but visuals can only propel you so far. There's no life, no desire to follow Joe's full lead. The movie makes various points, but none of them stick. Instead, they loll around a lax attempt at making sense of Lehanve's complex ideas and the end result is a major league mess. Live By Night lacks the strong center that allows ideas and individuals to effortlessly revolve around it. With that factor MIA, the movie is DOA.


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