Ben Affleck has become synonymous with excellence. Over the last decade, he has produced, written, directed and starred in a slew of fantastic films that have captivated audiences and earned him well deserved accolades. It seems as though his time spent behind the camera unleashed his talent in front of it, which had been prominently subdued since his turn in Good Will Hunting. The common thread of all Affleck films has been the familiar backdrop, with all but one of his directorial efforts taking place in the fair city of Boston. The other commonality seems to be his consistent love affair with his leading man, which is often himself. Live By Night is certainly no exception, with Boston as a setting and a difficulty objectively portraying an honest version of his lead, this film struggles with it’s creators inability to avoid grand self indulgence.
Affleck’s prohibition inspired gangster saga, is neither sprawling enough to capture old world Hollywood flare, nor sharply focused enough to present a clear and direct procedural. The story follows Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck), a self proclaimed outlaw recently returned from war, to a world where gangsters rule. Coughlin and his crew make their living hitting mob-run gambling rings and small banks for quick cash. This all changes as Joe falls for the troubled girlfriend of one of Boston’s most notorious gangsters Albert White (Robert Glenister). Joe and his love, Emma (Sienna Miller), plot to flee the city after a big score and live their lives in sunny California. After a disastrous escape from the bank his crew takes down, and a run in with White, which sees Emma selling him down the river, not even Joe’s father Thomas (Brendan Gleeson), a police Lieutenant, can save him from the cities painful wrath. This may sound like a whole lot to take in, but rest assured there are no spoilers afoot, as all of this takes place in act one.
Joe spends three years in prison plotting his vengeance on White, agreeing to team with his rival, Masco Pescatore (Remo Girone). He heads to Florida, to run whiskey and escape his demons. It is here he helps establish an empire and builds a new life only to have his faith, and his livelihood tested again and again.
Stylistically, Affleck’s eye for a distinctive visual outlet is particularly satisfying in what can be described as one of his more breathtaking films, cinematically. Unfortunately the film suffers from a lack of focus, and an incapacity to reign in his unabashed admiration for his anti-hero lead. The problems are centrally fitted in the connective tissue. Too many subplots branch off, but serve no purpose to the greater narrative, thus becoming dead ends that create a puzzle where the audience is left to question the filmmakers motivation. The initial love story between Joe and Emma establishes the leads inspiration, but it ultimately becomes an unexplored plot device, which is a shameful waste, given Affleck and Miller’s palpable chemistry.
The lead in from act one–to the meat of the story, runs at an electrifying pace that becomes unsustainable. When Joe hits Tampa, the story does a rapid about face and then spreads itself too thin. Introducing a host of new characters and an entirely new setting that presents it’s own set of challenges, the movie spirals out of control, splitting itself in a million directions, halting any momentum seized from the introduction. Live By Night collapses under the pressure of it’s overstuffed plot. One that doesn’t have the time it needs to properly explore all of it’s themes with any diligence. The result becomes a slog of a second act which serves as little more than a love letter to its central figure. The film falters drags with too many paper thin plot lines, like the rogue KKK member (Matthew Maher), a curmudgeon yet agreeable police chief (Chris Cooper) and his evangelical daughter (Elle Fanning), and the consistent through line of the internal battle between Coughlin and the gangsters whose conflict he sits himself squarely in the middle of.
One of the biggest let downs is the secondary love story between Afflecks Joe and Zoe Saldana’s Graciela. The relationships lack of passion is only further illuminated by it’s predecessor’s (Joe and Emma) heat. It seems like a shoehorned plot device that only serves to bring forth some empathy to an otherwise cruel antagonist. There in lies the real issue, there is no actual antagonist, and Affleck’s inability to drum up sympathy for the character he holds in such high regard, is the movies undoing.
The lack of tension is as surprising as it is troubling, given that Affleck’s first three films were soaked with it. Unfortunately he tries so desperately at creating a sense of visual gravitas that he fails to envelop his audience in a coherent story, with any regularity. This is increasingly egregious, given the profound performances that litter this film. Chris Cooper, Elle Fanning and Ben Affleck are all fantastic, but sadly this does not equal the sum of it’s parts. Affleck loses himself as a visionary by not exploring all of the avenues he spends time creating. As the end credits roll, there is no escaping the empty feeling, as if something we’re missing. In this case, the story deserved another hour of run time to really develop it’s focus and even out it’s pacing. The trouble with all of this is, Live By Night is by no means a bad movie, on the contrary it’s actually more than adequate. But for Ben Affleck, adequate is not longer acceptable. This film has greatness in it, but maybe that greatness hit the cutting room floor, and the hubris of the director keeps the audience at too great a distance to merit praise.
2.95/5 Do Better Bro