Live by Night (2016) / Drama-Thriller
MPAA Rated: R for strong violence, language throughout, and some sexuality/nudity
Running Time: 128 min.
Cast: Ben Affleck, Zoe Saldana, Chris Messina, Sienna Miller, Robert Glenister, Elle Fanning, Remo Girone, Miguel, Brendan Gleeson, Chris Sullivan, Titus Welliver, Max Casella, Matthew Maher, Ford Austin
Small role: Anthony Michael Hall
Director: Ben Affleck
Screenplay: Ben Affleck (based on the novel by Dennis Lehane)
Review published January 10, 2017
After three solid theatrically released efforts as a director, two of which he also served as screenwriter, one would think that Ben Affleck could do no wrong, especially since his last film, Argo, took home a Best Picture Oscar. Live by Night bring the filmmaker back down to earth as someone who can't quite do it all just yet. His first major mistake in this effort is to cast himself in the lead role as an up-and-coming criminal mastermind and Casanova.
Set in the early 20th Century, we find Joe Coughlin (Affleck), back to Boston after fighting in the Great War in Paris. His father's a bigwig policeman, his main squeeze a gangster's moll named Emma (Miller, Burnt), and the gangster Emma's tied to is Albert White (Glenister, "Law & Order: UK"), the head of the Irish mob that he regularly rubs elbows with (and sometimes rips off). Alas, it's a recipe for disaster, leaving him vulnerable for a takedown. Joe vows revenge for wrongs committed against him, and his allegiance shifts end up sending him to Tampa, Florida, where he is committed to seeing the molasses flowing through to make that all-important rum. Love, power and fame follow suit, but can Joe emerge on top in a dog-eat-dog world run by ruthless rival crime families?
Playing in the realm of sweeping gangster opus that few beyond Scorsese and Coppola have been able to wrangle successfully, Affleck struggles mightily to strike new ground, and falls far short in those moments when he deliberately tries to emulate his predecessors. Granted, he's done well in the crime drama genre before with The Town and Gone Baby Gone, but he bites off more than he can chew with the kind of long-range and wide-open period-piece epic that Live by Night is supposed to be, a sort of LA Confidential set on the East Coast. The more outside of his comfort zone Affleck seems to be, the less assured his film comes across, rendering moments of excitement as flaccid as we watch a filmmaker go through the motions intellectually. Nothing is fine-tuned here; it looks right, but if never coalesces into something that feels assured or authentic.
While it's true that Affleck has an easygoing charisma that has elevated him to star status in a number of films, especially in recent times, he looks like a guy only playing dress up as a hard-nosed gangster who goes from two-bit crook to tussling with the big boy crime syndicates that control most of the Eastern seaboard. First, there's something too naive and baby-faced about Affleck's appearance and demeanor to suggest he's a scarred and battle-hardened veteran of war in the European theater. Second, he's too soft and thoughtful in his conversation with others to ever feel the gravitas or intimidation necessary to believe Joe Coughlin is someone who can climb the ranks within criminal organizations who are ruthless and murderous when it comes to money, power and corruption.
Despite being so completely wrong in the title role in a way that cripples any chance for Live by Night to be at least passably enjoyable, Affleck does pull together a nice supporting cast around him to occasionally deliver a few interesting and well-delivered moments, even if their characterizations rarely rise above relying on broad stereotypes and a few cartoony facets to make them instantly distinguishable. Alas, many of these actors are gone not long after their characters are introduced, with a number of them seeming superfluous to the story save to put another recognizable actor on the screen.
Most of the scenes these supporting actors are involved with introduce subplots into an already packed movie, as the film plays more like someone decided to take the main highlights of a 10-episode TV season and cram them into a two-hour movie, keeping in whatever titillates with sex, violence, romance, car chases, racist loons, and macho bravado, but excising anything those things that would have actually made us care about any of those aspects when they do occur. Further compounding the problems, while the surrounding cast has individual moments to shine, Affleck keeps himself always in the frame, with a character we neither relate to nor particularly like, though he seems to clearly indicate through what minimal character development there is that we should do both.
Great costume and period set design are also handled quite well, gorgeously recreating the look and feel, albeit in a glossy, idealized, Tinseltown way, of 1920s Boston and Tampa. If one were merely to luxuriate in the sights and sounds of these vivid, well-photographed, and sumptuously scored recreations, even without characters and story to follow, perhaps the movie might even have been more palatable than what's offered to distract us from them. Unfortunately, there's a big and broad story here, and we get plenty of it.
Further on the downside, the voice-over narration by Affleck is as lackluster in its delivery as his overall on-screen tough-guy performance, making what should have felt like a tight noir endeavor seem like a made-for-TV production. The narration in this case seems to have been added in the editing room, as much of it tries to tell us that a certain character died as an explanation as to why we're not seeing that actor again in the film. Studio cuts seem a given, especially when you read the IMDB cast page and see that some of these actors played a more prominent role, and others, such as a credited Scott Eastwood, are cut out of the film altogether.
The summation to the experience of Live by Night is that it is a big mess, with an overstuffed plot, and a lack of adequate time and care for building it up in a sufficient enough fashion to feel hooked into it. Perhaps if Live by Night, which is based on a Dennis Lehane novel (Affleck's second adaptation of Lehane, after Gone Baby Gone) were to have been made a mini-series on a premium cable channel, the amount of time and care for the characters might have resulted in a much better experience for us than to witness a highly convoluted plot filled with lots of things going on that we just don't care a great deal about.
Certainly, Affleck must have wished for more time, with those tell-tale signs that a lot of this project likely resides on the proverbial cutting-room floor. Perhaps it will be scooped up and waiting for a Director's Cut release sometime down the road, which might give the much needed connective tissue to make the film at least passably enjoyable or interesting. As for what's been released, it's too compromised to feel authentic, and too disjointed to wholeheartedly invest one's interest in beyond the sumptuous production design.
©2017 Vince Leo