There is a brilliant movie desperately trying to rise to the surface in Live by Night, Ben Affleck's effort to bring back Hollywood's golden era of gangster flicks by adapting Dennis Lehane's novel by the same name for the big screen.
Here's the problem. Ben Affleck.
While Affleck has proven himself to be a perfectly competent, if somewhat overrated, director, Live by Night is a beautiful film to watch but an almost mind-numbingly bland cinematic experience with nary a spark to be found save for the possible exception a couple of the supporting performances.
While I wouldn't dare say that Affleck has proven himself to be a great director, despite his critical acclaim and Oscar glory with his last flick Argo, the truth is that Affleck has always chosen his projects well and Gone Baby Gone, The Town, and Argo have all been infinitely watchable and entertaining films if not nearly as brilliant as some might like to proclaim.
There will be no such proclaiming with Live by Night, a good film at best for even the most inexperienced moviegoer and an incredibly average one for anyone who remembers Hollywood's classic years of gangster flicks and who knows a thing or two about what it takes to make a good action pic.
Every year, there's a film or two shown to film critics during awards season that sort of leaves film critics shaking their heads wondering why anyone would possibly think it was an awards contender. This year, Live by Night is such a film.
Affleck plays Joe Coughlin, the son of the Boston Police Superintendent (Brendan Gleeson) who sort of stumbles into his life of crime following his experiences fighting in World War I. Set in the 1920's, Live by Night at least looks like a masterpiece. D.P. Robert Richardson's lensing is stunning to behold and works dazzlingly alongside Jess Gonchor's immersive, vibrant and period appropriate production design.
Coughlin starts as a two-bit player, but he attracts the attention of Albert White (Robert Glenister), who runs the Irish mob in Boston and starts Coughlin up the ladder. Coughlin is brash, maybe too brash for his own good, as he's having an affair with White's moll (Sienna Miller), which when discovered doesn't exactly go over well and lands him in prison. Released three years later, he hooks up with White's rival, Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone), and is sent down to head up the rum-running operation in the burgeoning market of Tampa.
With Affleck at the helm, Live by Night works overly hard to convince us that Coughlin is really a pretty decent fellow despite his penchant for breaking the laws and breaking the bones of those who get in the way of his breaking the laws. In fact, Live by Night works way too hard to toss in moral quandaries and faux ethics. While there are actors who could pull off the multiple layers of Joe Coughlin, Affleck isn't one of them. Capable of 1-2 layers at best, Affleck's Coughlin is largely devoid of the moral and emotional complexity that the script, written by Affleck, is asking him to have.
If an actor is going to write a part for himself, wouldn't the goal be to make oneself actually look good?
Affleck isn't bad here, in moments he's even quite good, but he's simply miscast as the morally conflicted and essentially "good" Coughlin, a presence that never really comes to life with Affleck's trademark chiseled stoicism.
Matthew Maher, not the Christian singer, is the first to challenge Coughlin's pre-ordained ruling of the Tampa liquor market. Maher's RD Pruitt also just so happens to be the brother-in-law of the local sheriff, the sort of morally conflicted Christian lawman who would pass as a Trump supporter nowadays. The sheriff, essentially the most authentic character to be found in this story, is played with quiet authority by the always dependable Chris Cooper. The film's other top notch performance is turned in by Elle Fanning as Loretta, the sheriff's daughter whose attempt at Hollywood stardom ended incredibly badly and brings her back to town as a born-again revivalist preacher.
If this all sounds incredibly jumbled, it is.
Affleck remains for the most part faithful to Lehane's writing, a fact that works against the needs of the film. If I wanted to read the book, I'd read the book. At 128 minutes, Live by Night is a woefully long and self-indulgent experience that weaves in too many storylines and too many characters and too much mind-numblingly slow pacing that the film easily could have been knocked down by 30 minutes and ended up immensely more entertaining.
Live by Night isn't an awful film, but it's the kind of film that's inevitably a hard sell for studios and it's hard to imagine word-of-mouth is going to help build the buzz. With a movie poster that makes Affleck look like he's just been forced to sit through Bill Cosby's Ghost Dad, Live by Night is not quite dead on arrival but it barely registers a pulse.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic