Live by Night, 2016.
Written and Directed by Ben Affleck.
Starring Ben Affleck, Elle Fanning, Zoe Saldana, Sienna Miller, Chis Messina, Robert Glenister, Remo Girone, Chris Cooper, Anthony Michael Hall, Clark Gregg, Max Casella, Miguel J. Pimentel, Titus Welliver, Matthew Maher, and Brendan Gleeson.
A group of Boston-bred gangsters set up shop in balmy Florida during the Prohibition era, facing off against the competition and the Klu Klux Klan.
Writer, director, star Ben Affleck’s (The Town, Argo) Live by Night suffers from an identity crisis. It doesn’t know if it wants to be a tale of Robin Hood style Prohibition-era mobsters, a classic revenge story, a war between gangsters and the Ku Klux Klan, a battle over turf between Irish and Italian mobs, the startup of a casino, or whatever the other subplots are that I’m forgetting. The point is that Live by Night is a mess structurally and narratively, something that is abundantly evident once the train derails after the admittedly fantastic opening 20 minutes. By the ending, the entire story is just absolutely ridiculous. There’s also a twist that you can’t help but put your finger on; one of those twists that you actively root against happening for how ludicrous the reality of it would feel.
If Live by Night was a movie about what the opening five minutes promise, which is an American war veteran turned professional robber named Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck) also sleeping with the girlfriend of the head of the Irish mob (Sienna Miller), and them hiding their relationship as tensions continue to rise between warring factions of gangsters, it probably would have been pretty damn good. Even if it were the most simple revenge story possible, elevated from the always stunning backdrop of mobster wardrobes and their luxurious, champagne-drenched, suit-sporting parties, an explosive mixture of action and thrills could have taken center stage. Instead, we get… this.
Let me put it this way, there is a correlation between the recent news reports of Ben Affleck hesitant on directing The Batman, and the less than stellar critical reception thus far for this picture: Both will fail for the same exact reasons. Adapted from the novel of the same name by Dennis Lahane, Live by Night is massive in scope, containing a number of subplots, locales, and characters to go along with it. Now, many of these individual scenes are interesting to a degree (Elle Fanning plays a recovering heroin addict now preaching the word of God, in the process labeling the idea of a casino as a form of sinning, stunting Joe’s contingency plan in the inevitably of the legalization of alcohol), but are never given enough time to mean anything. I just plucked out my favorite of the 27 plots going on, but even so, it still lacks gravitas. Every 20 minutes feels like a new chapter that is rushed through at breakneck speed.
With that in mind you might be led to believe that Live by Night is some action extravaganza rip-roaring through countless scenes of tommy guns spraying bullets everywhere, buildings being set on fire, etc… but it’s not. It is actually the polar opposite, more focused on sophisticated, often philosophical, dialogue between characters discussing right and wrong, morality, heaven, and more. Most of the death scenes are just quick cutaways to scenes of Ben Affleck narrating “yeah, this happened and that guy died, now here’s a 10-minute scene of a conversation that is equal parts interesting and boring”. Goodfellas opened with Henry Hill musing that he always wanted to be a gangster… well if he saw this movie he would have been too bored to even come up with that dream.
Of course, because none of the subplots and multiple characters carry any weight, this also means that most of the serviceable acting performances (Affleck has rounded up an impressive cast of names including Zoe Saldana, Chris Cooper, Sienna Miller, Bredan Gleeson etc) go to waste. Gleeson plays the father of Joe, who is also on the police force, which you think would make for an interesting dynamic given everything going on, but nope, 10 minutes of screen time. Saldana plays the gorgeous Cuban love interest, but it doesn’t take much to woo her or anything, as the movie is always zipping through its important beats.
By the time Live by Night erupts into a cacophony of bullets and violence, you’ll be grateful that there is finally some excitement, angry that they actually went with the most obvious twist possible, and joyful that the experience is almost over. Almost is the key word, as the numerous endings scenes seemingly go on forever, only getting more implausible and silly with each one. Repent… Repent… Repent watching Live by Night. Writing this review actually made me realize it’s much more of a disaster than I initially thought, but in its defense, the shootouts toward the end are excellently staged and intense. Everything else is a forgettable bust. And now Ben Affleck is having second thoughts directing The Batman, having realized that taking on stories of a much larger magnitude may not be something he is capable of yet as a growing filmmaker.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★