Evan as an actor with a decidedly mixed batting average, Ben Affleck has become one of the most respected directors in Hollywood. He gave us two well spun Boston crime webs in Gone Baby Gone and The Town, only to turn around and deliver an equally strong historical thriller in Argo. However, in each of those three films, it was clear that Affleck was still trying to prove just how talented he was behind the lens. After Argo’s Best Picture win, he knows that he’s in the club, and you can start to see that arrogant confidence in Live By Night.
Affleck plays Joe Coughlin, a low-level crook who’s desperately trying to get out of the prohibition-era life of crime as quickly as he can. Unfortunately, he finds himself trapped in a love affair with Emma Gould (Sienna Miller), the wife of kingpin Albert White (Robert Glenister). White destroys Joe’s life, and after a stint in prison, Joe decides to join up with White’s rival, Maso Piscatory (Remo Girone), who’s cornered the market on Rum in Florida. Joe ends up heading out to The Sunshine State, slowly establishing himself as the enforcer of that sect of the business and becoming a powerful outlaw in his own right.
This is a lengthy and complex epic with a lot of chess pieces on the table. Affleck is aiming for a Martin Scorsese vibe here, even implementing voice over to string everything together. Unfortunately, Live By Night can only dream of having the energy and focus of movies like Goodfellas and Casino. Where Scorsese’s films feel like one story with a multi-layered narrative, Affleck’s feels like an entire season of television haphazardly crammed into two hours and ten minutes. The structure is largely episodic, with Joe taking on various adversaries in self-contained spurts. Each of these little chunks lightly sets-up the next, but in a way that feels like we should be waiting a week to see how it pays off. Besides Joe, none of these characters are really given the chance to have an arc, because they’re rushed off-screen so quickly to get to the next segment. The connections become so loose, that it’s easy to forget where we even started by the time the film comes to its climax.
Since these characters are so paper thin, the cast isn’t really given a chance to bring much to the table. Affleck is a capable leading man but he seems to be somewhere else whenever he’s on-screen. Trying to pull off this insane balancing act while acting at the same time must be incredibly stressful, and it shows. While he’s done solid character work in his other films, Affleck would’ve definitely benefited from using a different actor here. The supporting players are either too subdued or flat-out cartoonish. The other gang members and mobsters, in particular, feel like they’re pulled right out of a Sunday comic from 1930. Matthew Maher’s ridiculously over the top cross-eyed klansman is the worst offender, devouring the scenery like it’s a meal made just for him. Zoe Saldana and Sienna Miller are wasted in one-dimensional love interest roles, while Brendan Gleeson and Chris Cooper do more subtle work that clashes with the more over the top bits. Elle Fanning gets a couple of strong moments as Cooper’s former drug addict turned preacher daughter who forms a strong uprising against a casino Joe is building. Joe’s choice of whether or not to snuff her out is the most interesting morality play in the film, and they get a couple of strong moments to play off of each other.
Even with the film’s deep flaws, Affleck’s strong direction saves it from being a total wash. It certainly has the most unique visual style of any of his work. The cinematography has a very picturesque quality to it, with sharp colors and contrasts bleeding through every frame. It looks a living version of a mural you’d see hanging in a restaurant. The production design is beautiful as well, authentic without feeling showy. Every moment of action, large or small, is thrilling. Affleck has a keen eye for blunt violence, making every kill feel painful. It ranges from little murders on the streets. to car chases, to shoot-outs, and it all works. Unfortunately, Affleck’s screenplay is a lot more interested in the most procedural parts of the story. There is an absolute glut of table-set conversations here. In fact, there is so much sitting around that one has to wonder if Affleck just got tired of standing up on the set. Dialogue is absolutely a key part of any crime film, but it needs to be extremely dynamic, and so many scenes here feel exactly the same. It doesn’t help that much of the dialogue is extremely cliched. The film wants to say something new about morality, criminality, and cruelty, but you can practically see it looking over at a better movie’s paper to do so. It often seems as though the characters are more concerned with setting up lines for the trailer than they are for the story.
Live By Night is by far Affleck’s weakest and most indulgent film. It wears the clothes and shoots the guns of a great crime film, while unintentionally becoming a parody of itself. With that said, it’s not a total loss. It never stops being great to look at and there are several moments that hint at a better, more streamlined film. However, what we get instead is a bloated mess that can’t decide if it’s a cartoon or a classic, and ends up being neither.