Live By Night
Live By Night is Ben Affleck's attempt to take the gangster film back to its prohibition-era roots. It's an admirable task he takes on as writer, director, producer, and actor. Can he pull it off?
Ben Affleck’s newest film, Live By Night, is an attempt to bring a traditional genre style, in this case the prohibition-era gangster crime thriller, up to modern specifications. The film centers around a character named Joe Coughlin who is a successful criminal that doesn’t want to be part of organized crime. He’s supposed to be one of those noble sorts of criminals, making his life the way he wants to, and working hard to silence those people who tell him he can’t do it. In many ways, this character’s efforts echo those of the actor/filmmaker portraying him. Affleck, despite having a successful film career with many impressive highlights, still seems like he has something to prove. Despite his recent films winning Oscars and finding success at the box office, his career turnaround from the brink 10 years ago won’t be complete until he can prove that he is the total package. Live By Night is meant as that statement. Here we find Affleck writing, directing, producing and starring; all at the same time. Unfortunately, while taking on more responsibilities, Affleck has neglected those aspects which made his more recent successes so resounding.
Affleck’s character, Joe Coughlin, makes the typically fatal mistake of falling in love with a powerful crime boss's girlfriend. He tries to be a success at everything all at once, and in doing so neglects something that later catches up to him. When he barely escapes with his life, he has no choice but to team up with a rival crime boss in order to get revenge. The film then follows Couglin to Florida where he makes his mark smuggling rum and working to secure his power. In the end, he has to face the same situation over again. Can you really try to have everything and succeed in achieving it all?
Oddly enough, despite the title, Live By Night rarely has a scene that takes place at night. It’s just one of a number of inferred promises regarding the modernized gangster film set-up that the film fails to live up to. This is less of a coherent movie as it is a series of scenes stitched together of either Ben Affleck’s character claiming he doesn’t want to be a gangster, or of people telling him that is a good gangster. It gives very little context along the way to allow the audience to make their own opinions about who Coughlin is supposed to be. If the film’s intent was to promote the congruity of the American dream across all walks of life, including the world of crime, it doesn’t provide much of a compelling case.
Instead, once Coughlin does become a powerful crime lord two thirds through the film we’re just supposed to believe that he is as strong and cunning as everyone claims. There are precious few scenes of the character actually doing work as a gangster that help to build the persona that the film wants him to be. Nothing feels earned or genuine. It’s a rushed attempt to deliver a gruesome climax at the end of the film with no foundation built up along the way.
Thus, those heading into Live By Night expecting a modern version of a traditional gangster film like I did will be sorely disappointed. Live By Night wants to be a modern version of a traditional gangster film, but it doesn’t have the patience nor the filmmaking restraint to pull it off. Writer, director, and star Ben Affleck is clearly to blame. The concept of the story simply gets away from him. While The Town showed us that he could write a impactful and constrained crime thriller, the switch to a 1920’s setting seems like it was too much of a distraction. Live By Night is too preoccupied in exploring the time period to focus on building its main character. Instead, we’re shown glamorous parties, bootleggers, spotless automobiles, and sweeping shots of the locations that all feel more applicable to The Great Gatsby than a film that is serious about its crime drama intentions.
Every scene seems like it's set in a new place. There’s no establishment of location into which the audience can feel comfortable. Instead, we’re bombarded by dialogue of characters telling us what is happening, rather than showing us what is happening. The storytelling aspect of the film is simply atrocious. I’ve never seen a film that simultaneously felt like it was too long and too short. Too long because it simply doesn’t have anything interesting to show you. By the end of the first act you are already frustrated with the word-of-mouth type of storytelling that Affleck decides to use. There’s a narration at the very beginning of the film to help set the story up, and then it confusingly isn’t heard from again until quite a bit later. Too short because what is in the film rarely makes sense. During this middle section, having additional scenes to explain what is happening would have gone a long way to making the story more coherent, and perhaps in doing so would give the audience something they could actually become engaged in. Instead, the film tries to use a quick pace to gloss over much of the tedious task of setting everything up.
The pacing can be described as haphazard, at best. It randomly skips forward in time, which doesn’t make the film difficult to follow, but removes any sort of ability to establish a sense of accomplishment for the characters. We see them talk about the work they have to do to accomplish their goal, and then in the next scene all of that work has been completed. Where other filmmakers may use montages, or chose to change perspective to a different character in order to explain how the more menial efforts are taken care of, Affleck simply skips over these moments altogether. Similarly, there are characters whom we are told are important people, yet they appear in one or two scenes and then disappear altogether. The audience never gets to know anyone well enough to buy into the story, including Coughlin.
It doesn’t help that Affleck’s performance as a 20’s Boston gangster feels emotionless and generic. This was a film that was originally intended to star DiCaprio, and it is obvious that the intensity DiCaprio would have brought is sorely missed. Affleck’s Bostonian gangster is too serious, and trying too hard to have a sort of understated comfort amid the tough-guy persona of his profession. Zoe Saldana and Sienna Miller are both capable actresses, but as Couglin’s love interests at various time of his life, they are also not consistent. Part of the problem is that Affleck doesn’t give them much to do.They each have a few quick scenes before they are asked to do something of larger implication, but by that point the audience doesn’t know them well enough for those sequences to have the emotional impact that was intended. The film pulls in all sorts of characters, but none of them ever get the chance to be more than just a talking head. The film even tries to utilize the always interesting Brendan Gleeson as Couglin’s father, and his potential is utterly wasted.
Will Live By Night change anything about Affleck’s legacy as a filmmaker? I don’t think so. He’s made bad films before, and even with his good films there’s been a certain hesitation to give him all the credit for the success he’s had. Look at Argo, and the Academy’s decision to not give him a best director nomination. If anything, Live By Night reaffirms what we already know about Ben Affleck. He is an excellent collaborator, someone whose lengthy career has now afforded him the power to turn the wheels of Hollywood and take on the kinds of projects that interest him. However, much like Live By Night’s scatterbrained plot, Affleck has to have something to focus his energies in order to succeed. In films like The Town, and Gone Baby Gone, he had his home town as inspiration and collaborator Aaron Stockard to assist him. Live By Night was simply too much for Affleck to handle all by himself. If he would have focused on either writing and directing while letting someone else do everything else, including star in the film, the film may have actually accomplished what it needed to. Instead, it ends up as proof that Affleck is not as ready to be a complete filmmaker as he might have hoped.
What's Bad: Terrible script, lackluster acting, unfocused direction, lack of coherent story, glosses over a lot of important storytelling, doesn't make any effort to create characters, too many distractions, doesn't provide the scope that the story deserves, and the film is rarely exciting.