Film Review: Ben Affleck's "Live By Night" is a formless affair
Ben Affleck's fourth writer/directorial effort Live By Night (adapted from the novel by Dennis Lehane) is his first major misstep as a writer/director. His previous films – Gone Baby Gone, The Town, Argo – were terrific dramas and proof that Affleck had an innate gift for telling a good crime story. They smartly put function before form and as a result they hold up to repeat viewings. Maybe Affleck had a desire to make something with a bit of razzle dazzle this time around, which, yeah, Live By Night has all the pomp and circumstance of a lavish 30's themed gangster party. But without a central compelling narrative and propelled by a main character (played of course by Ben Affleck) who is impossible to invest in or truly know despite the obscenely long running time, it feels just about as frivolous.
And it's not just the dramatically inert script that kills Live By Night in the womb. Affleck directs with such a stultifying hand that there's no blood, no oxygen to the film; no suggestion that the world is any bigger than what we're seeing on the screen. Consider that the first Godfather film (which Live By Night is clearly trying to emulate) takes place, at least 90 percent of the time, in dimly lit rooms. But there are so many wonderful little touches along the way that trick you into thinking you're watching something so much bigger. While it's unfair to use The Godfather as the standard against which all films are judged, not even for a minute did I view Live By Night as anything but an expensive stage play populated by movie stars playing dress-up.
Anyway, the plot, I guess. Affleck plays Joe Coughlin, the son of a Boston policeman (Brendan Gleeson), who falls into a life of crime after experiencing the horror of WWI. We never get see him experience the horror, we just have him quickly tell us that in a voiceover, and thus robbing us the chance to truly empathise with him. Live By Night does this a lot. Joe starts with small potato stuff – robbing card games and the like. But soon he's offered a job by a real gangster, Albert White (Robert Glenister), who is unaware that Joe is having an affair with his girlfriend (Sienna Miller). He gets found out, of course, and gets near beaten to death.
After three years in prison, Joe goes to work for Italian crime boss, Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone), who orders him to run a multi-million dollar bootlegging operation in Florida. It's there that he comfortably settles into his role as a gangster and makes a good life with new lover Graciella (Zoe Saldana). But, he is forced to contend with new problems such as the KKK and a pious police chief (Chris Cooper) and his troubled daughter (Elle Fanning).
Bear in mind that what I just wrote is only the premise. That's quite a lot of story; maybe too much. Indeed, it often feels like a whole season of Boardwalk Empire stuffed into a two and a half hour film. Or an adaptation that didn't make many choices and tried to cover every single thing from its source material and so consequently it suffers from that weird pacing issue that all mediocre adaptions have - where it feels like things are simultaneously moving too fast and not fast enough.
It's a staid film that doesn't offend or anger. Actually, there are morsels of pleasure to be found here and there, mainly in the sumptuous visuals, costumes, and a handful of scenes that threaten something of interest to occur. No, it's not garbage. It's just a formless affair that feels destined to be relegated to the 2 and a half star pile on Netflix. It's a shame.