I’m not the biggest fan of gangster movies; I believe they start and stop with the first two Godfather films; everything else usually ends up making me want to just re-watch The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II, but there are exceptions. I think Scorsese has a few great ones and a couple of good ones, and then there’s Scarface (both the original 1932 film and its 1983 remake), The Untouchables, and Carlito’s Way, but for the most part I don’t rush out to catch these kinds of movies. Seven years ago, Ben Affleck came back from being the media’s whipping boy and released The Town; it was, to put it bluntly, fucking fantastic. I was a big fan of Gone Baby Gone, and while it did receive its fair share of critical acclaim, I feel people were quick to jump back on the anti-Affleck bandwagon shortly after its release, but with The Town, Ben Affleck was now Hollywood’s golden boy director. Argo was a different kind of movie, but it cemented his status as a legit filmmaker while also distancing him from his Gigli days. I remember being in a theater watching a marathon of Edgar Wright’s Cornetto Trilogy when during one of our intermissions someone loudly announced that Ben Affleck was set to star as Batman in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, the groans were almost deafening. I believed Affleck would pull it off, and most agree with me that he is the high point of that mostly dreary and dull mistake, and now everyone is waiting on bated breath for Ben Affleck to direct a new solo-Batman movie. People have faith in Ben Affleck nowadays, at least when it comes to the films he directs himself. Live by Night was a movie I was excited to see based on Affleck’s name alone; did it live up to the standard that Affleck has set for himself in recent years? Well, yes and no. While I enjoyed Live by Night as a whole, the film has some evident problems.
Written, Directed, and starring Ben Affleck, Live by Night is based on the novel by Dennis Lahane. Affleck plays Joe Coughlin, a World War I veteran who comes home to Boston and lives off of small robberies. He’s in love with a woman involved with big time gangster Albert White (played by Robert Glenister). After being double-crossed, Coughlin aligns himself with White’s rival, Maso Pescatore (played by Remo Girone). He’s put in charge of running operations in prohibition Florida where he befriends Police Chief Higgis (played by Chris Cooper), falls in love with the beautiful Graciela (played by Zoe Saldana), and butts heads with RD Pruitt, a member of the KKK (played exquisitely by Matthew Maher). There’s also the former drug addict turned religious leader Loretta Figgis (played by Elle Fanning) who stands in Coughlin’s way of building a casino. All of the problems Coughlin faces expertly weave into one another; the plot moves at an almost perfect pace without anything feeling too superfluous.
The aforementioned problems this film has are minor, but noticeable enough to where they hurt the film. Since this is based on a novel, I have to state that some of these problems could be due to Affleck’s desire to stick close to the source material; since I haven’t read the novel, I’m not certain enough to put the blame solely on Affleck’s shoulders. The film has a lot of double-crossing happening, and the motivations aren’t very clear. The film presents its betrayals with explosive ferocity, but there comes a point where it needs to be more than shock value, it has to make sense and it has to be foreshadowed. Things happen out of nowhere, and it cheapens its intended effect. Sienna Miller plays Emma Gould, the girlfriend of Albert White, and her scenes are painful to watch, especially her attempt at using an Irish accent. She’s a weak spot in the sea of talent contained within this film. Her character’s motivations are so weakly explained, and we were better off knowing nothing about her endgame. The finale had one last shocking moment that just seemed forced and unearned. It’s sole purpose was to show us that Coughlin’s actions will always affect those around him; I think we’ve seen this happen a billion times already, and there’s nothing new about it here.
Live by Night entertained me, but I definitely believe it to be Ben Affleck’s worst film to date. Don’t resurrect the Affleck hating bandwagon, however; his worst film is, by no means, a disaster, it’s just not up to the high standard of his previous work. The cast is wonderful (with the exception of Sienna Miller), the story held my interest, and the cinematography and set design do well in this period piece crime drama, but it’s hurt by random character impulses, familiar tropes we’ve seen played out in countless other films, and an underwhelming ending that forces itself into being a morality play. If you’re into crime dramas, this might be your lukewarm cup of tea.
Live by Night (2016) Written, Directed, and Produced by: Ben Affleck. Starring: Ben Affleck, Brendan Gleeson, Zoe Saldana, Sienna Miller, Chris Cooper, Elle Fanning, Robert Glenister, Chris Messina
7 out of 10