Director: Ben Affleck Starring: Ben Affleck, Sienna Miller, Chris Messina, Brendan Gleeson, Zoe Saldana, Chris Cooper, Elle Fanning Running Time: 129 minutes
They say that time camps all classics. Nobody actually says that, but perhaps they should of films like Live by Night, a gangster film written by, directed by and starring Ben Affleck that may gather a few chuckles at its ludicrous pulpishness a few years down the line, but for now stands only as an irritating vanity project. Affleck is clearly enamoured with his main character, a Boston thief drawn reluctantly into the war between Irish and Italian mobs during the American Prohibition. So enamoured in fact, that he avoids challenging him or questioning him at every turn, leaving him to murmer gravelly in relative peace. Beware of spoilers, as if watching Live by Night won’t spoil your evening on its own, but Affleck tells the classic gangster tale of a good man who starts the film insisting he won’t be morally compromised by being drawn into a life of crime, but ends the film…building a shelter for women and children and playing on the beach with his son. Just like The Godfather?
Adapted from a novel by Bostonian writer Dennis Lehane, whose work Affleck has taken on before in directing The Town, the story of Live by Night concerns Joe Coughlin, an Irish American whose low level robberies get him caught in the midst of a conflict between the Italian mafia and the Irish mob as they battle to control (where else?) Boston. Coughlin wants no part of their beef, but he’s having an affair with the mistress of the head of the Irish mafia. After getting sold out, beaten and told that his love has died in the aftermath, Joe swears revenge on Irish mob boss Albert White, teaming up with the Italians and taking charge of their rum business in Tampa to hurt his business. While there, he becomes involved both with Zoe Saldana and with the friction between the various immigrants and POC in the Ybor City neighbourhood and the reactionary ‘respectable’ white folks living comfortably and disapprovingly outside it.
Meandering from one of these plot threads to the next, Live by Night is a period piece that stops just short of having a subplot about wearing an onion on one’s belt. Which was the style at the time. Plots like the circumstances of Coughlin and White’s mutual moll go absent from the movie for so long that it’s hard to care about them when they re-emerge. It comes across that Affleck loved the source material so much he tried to cram it all in, resulting in an overstuffed film that changes what its about every 35 minutes. It doesn’t help that the large cast has many actors more charismatic than Affleck is here. Whether it’s Brendan Gleeson as Affleck’s disapproving father, Sienna Miller as the devil-may-care mistress or a particular standout in Elle Fanning as a reformed starlet preaching against vice in a tent, they all act rings around gruffly bland Ben and then usually, they exit the film. Come back Brendan, come back Elle. Or at least wherever you’re going take the wasted Saldana with you.
These supporting characters most frequently have the job of explaining things to Affleck, whether that be the plot or his own nature, since there’s nothing there for Affleck to convey that himself. Comparisons to video games are usually reserved for more sugar-rushed films, but the constant talking to this blank slate between the odd action set piece calls to mind the likes of L.A. Noire or the Godfather video game and their personality-deficient killbot leads.
The film’s total self-indulgence as a crime fantasy would be easier to excuse if it actually felt like its star was having any fun whatsoever. It is admittedly hard for him to look like he cares about what’s happening when new plots keep getting thrown on and nothing seems like a threat to the character, who doesn’t want to be a gangster but is of course excellent at it. The various threats have little weight-the Irish mob are forgotten frequently, Chris Cooper is the only present member of the Tampa police present and he barely seems to care about his job, the pushy Italians in charge are at a distance and the KKK are embodied by a cartoon character of a villain channeling Cousin Eddie. The story is neither a tragic fall nor a sexy ascent for Coughlin, who is kept stationary apart from spelling out how much of a success he is at selling rum over and over again. There is some salacious material here-affairs, car chases, crime under the nose of the authorities, but it plays out lifelessly, apart from a few nice shots of Tampa there’s so little energy in what plays out and the frequent interjections of Affleck’s narration comes across blatantly as an attempt to get a static plot moving forward when it won’t and to get the plots flowing seamlessly when they don’t. Only when things get really silly does the film threaten to come alive.
The lengths gone to for Affleck to have his cake and eat it too as a leading man do border on the ridiculous. It’s mentioned repeatedly that Joe Coughlin is a good man and not a killer, even though he’s mostly seen doing bad things. Especially killing. The score sometimes takes a turn for the bizarre, swelling dramatically in support of the idea that the film’s lead is a hero even if he is also, reluctantly they must stress, a violent badass. Affleck’s gangster, as a resident of Ybor, is assuredly as woke as it gets, all but staring right down the camera lens to tell a square WASP banker that racism is bad, no matter how many slurs he himself slings in his wicked hard Boston accent. The longer the film goes on the more contrived and over the top it gets, culminating in a shoot out with Chris Messina and other Affleck goons blowing all his rivals away, riddling a man with machine gun fire even though he’s already falling down a massive flight of stairs. When their mutual love shows up in a photograph alive after all, Albert White insists that it’s an old picture. Ah, but check the date on the newspaper in the bottom right hand corner he’s told, that proves it’s recent. Very convenient. The pulpy camp would be a strong point in Live by Night‘s favour if it wasn’t surrounded by so many dull crime cliches.
Featuring little that hasn’t been seen in other, better gangster films and ponderous as it features them, Live by Night is a toothless half-measure from a director and actor playing mob boss who still doesn’t want to look bad. Much of what makes the characters of great films about gangsters compelling-their greed, hubris, the embracing of their worst nature-is glossed over or ignored here. Though it may someday be a camp classic that can be looked back at with a laugh, all it is now is a window back to the dark days of 2003, when Ben Affleck’s reputation was in the toilet, or the Daredevil sensory deprivation tank. “This is Heaven”, he tells his son as the film finally closes. “Right here”. He’s quoting Elle Fanning from earlier, somehow omitting the part where it looks like Hell because we fucked it up. She slit her own throat not long after saying that too. This is not Heaven Ben. This mess is pretty far from that.(2 / 5)