Live by Night, Ben Affleck

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

Ben Affleck’s Live by Night is good at era-appropriate garb, but its adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s story lacks sizzle and scope.

Live by Night
Ben Affleck
Warner Bros
25 December 2016 (US)

Live By Night 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, and provided 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 with Live By Night is the performance of 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 works for the 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 film 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 cannolis 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.

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 likable 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 when he decided to make Live By Night, it seems like a sensible choice. He circled a two-part epic telling of Stephen King’s classic The Stand, which 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. Live By Night looks amazing, but visuals can only propel you so far. There’s no life, no desire to follow Joe’s lead. The film makes various points, but none of them stick. Instead, they loll around a lax attempt at making sense of Lehanve’s complex ideas, resulting in a major-league mess. Live By Night lacks the strong center that allows ideas and individuals to revolve around it effortlessly. With that factor, MIA, Live by Night is DOA.

RATING 4 / 10