Having Ben Affleck in the director’s chair has produced nothing but success up until now, but can he go four for four with his gangster noir Live By Night?
The rehabilitation of Affleck’s career was complete when his third feature, Argo, which he also starred in, was crowned Best Picture at the Academy Awards in 2013. In his follow up, however, Affleck the director, Affleck the screenwriter and especially Affleck the actor, all disappoint.07
Based on a novel by Dennis Lehane (a successful recipe for Gone Baby Gone) Live By Night sees Affleck as Joe Coughlin, a war veteran turned outlaw in prohibition-era Boston. Every noir staple is present here, as we see Coughlin’s rise, fall, and rise again up the ranks of the organised crime. The suits, cars and locations authentically create a living, breathing ‘real’ 1920s Boston. Sure, it’s a familiar plot, but gangster stories, especially of this time period, can be fascinating. The problem is that this just doesn’t bring anything new to the table. Worse still, it’s boring.
For a gangster film to ‘pop’, we need to feel connected to at least some of the characters, whether protagonist or antagonist, and that is perhaps the biggest problem here. Covering such a long period of Joe’s life, it shows us snippets of his interactions with everybody in the crime scene – an endless parade of men in (admittedly very nice) suits – without actually connecting to any of them. At the centre of this, Affleck sleepwalks through scenes without any emotion, not giving an ‘in’ to let us care about his character at all. His over-used narration sounds equally as soulless.
Amongst the huge cast, which wastes Brendan Gleeson as his stern cop father and Chris Cooper as a troubled sheriff, there are a couple that try their best to stand out. Sienna Miller is memorable as the femme fatale early on, and Elle Fanning commanding as a tortured pariah. The problem is that these two actresses have around twenty minutes of screen-time between them, and then we’re back to personality-less men in sharp suits.
There are a couple of action set pieces amongst all the meetings and ponderous dialogue, and these are actually well crafted and enjoyable. Perhaps not anything we haven’t seen before, but a car chase early on gives us a glimpse of how exciting this time period can be on screen, and how energetic this film could have been. Instead, it’s not representative of the film that follows it.
What is more representative of the film is the fact is feels like it has at least three natural endings. Instead of focussing on one thing, the film adopts an overstuffed ‘throw it all in’ approach which results in an end product severely lacking in focus. Given some room to breathe to develop some of the characters and their relationships, parts of this film could have been great. Instead, by the time we start to invest in somebody, we’ve moved onto something else.
At once feeling overlong and rushed, this is a perfect example of something that would work better as a television series. HBO’s Boardwalk Empire did everything this films attempts, and it did a lot more successfully. Despite its great cast and stylish atmosphere, Live by Night is a huge disappointment.
Live by Night is released in the UK on Friday 13th January