Written & Directed by Ben Affleck
Ben Affleck has burst onto the directing scene over the past decade with impressive films, quite honestly, I didn’t know he had in him after his ho-hum career as an actor. His debut, Gone Baby Gone, is a smart, tense thriller. The Town is a also a effective thriller, but what has surprised me about Affleck is his penchant for making his films feel endlessly cinematic. He has expressed a certain touch behind the camera which shows great promise, promise which was fully realized in his Best Picture winning Argo. All of this has made Ben Affleck a director to watch, and one who is boardering on must-see status each time he releases a new film. With that in mind, Live By Night is his latest, so I was understandably excited to see what experiences it had to offer. Let’s call it a “down” film for Mr. Affleck, as it doesn’t live up to his previous work quite as well, while also not derailing his craft enough for me to dismiss his talents going forward.
True to his roots, with Live By Night Ben Affleck has adapted famed Bostonian author Dennis Lehane’s novel of the same name (as he also did with Gone Baby Gone). Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck) is an admitted outlaw, son of a police chief (Brendan Gleeson) whose personal philosophy is to avoid the rival Boston mobs, the Irish led by Albert White (Robert Glenister), and the Italians led by Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone). But after falling for the girlfriend (Sienna Miller) of Albert White, Coughlin finds himself forced into the mob by Pescatore, who seeks to bring White down. Fleeing Boston after an unceremonious exit, Coughlin finds success in Tampa, Florida with his partner Bartolo (Chris Messina) while working for Pescatore. He once again falls in love with the sister (Zoe Saldana) of a Cuban rum maker, and finds trouble in the form of the precocious daughter (Elle Fanning) of the local police chief (Chris Cooper) when he attempts to open a new casino.
There really is a lot to pack into that plot description and not an easy way to sum it all up in a nice, neat little package. Whew! And that tends to be the film’s greatest downfall. It’s not hard to follow, to Affleck’s credit as a director. He is able to keep things in order and make sense of them, but there are a lot of characters to keep track of and a lot of goings on and intertwined relationships to keep track of. Most of it seems much ado about nothing in the end. Perhaps I feel that way because Joe Coughlin is the least interesting of all of them, mostly due to a very flatlined, vapid performance from Affleck himself (I’ve always said he is a far better director than he is an actor). He carried with him the dichotomy of being an outlaw and a gangster while also being the protagonist of the story. Yet that film noir element of an anti-hero never hits home for me to really care about Coughlin, his misfortune, or his two girlfriends.
I was much rather interested in the dynamic between the mob bosses and their struggle for control in both Boston and Florida, or how Elle Fanning’s Loretta and her father, played by Chris Cooper, play into the film noir tone of the film. Live By Night feels far too bloated for its own good, for while it features a number of intriguing characters and plot lines, it feels as though it lacks the time to sufficiently explore each of them to their potential depth, and the film is already over two hours in length. I would be curious to read Lehane’s source material, to find out just how long and involved that text is. Live By Night feels like it could have been a smashing mini-series, but in its current format it lacks any clear focus or consistency. Not without its moments, its a film that feels much more miss than hit unfortunately.
Live By Night is a film that is at its best when it is focused on shootouts, car chases and other felonious activities. When the film is forced to focus on its characters and plotting, it goes awry, which is surprising given Affleck’s deft touch as a director in past outings. In many ways it feels put together, as though the film had to be frantically edited in post-production to either attempt to cover up deficiencies not found during filming or simply to meet a deadline. It was the type of film that kept me on the edge of my seat as a result, for the wrong reasons. Unlike the films that keep me on the edge of my seat with anticipation, wondering with excitement what could possibly happen next, Live By Night had me on the edge of my seat with anticipation, wondering with bewilderment in what could possibly happen next based on what had come before.