Starring: Ben Affleck, Elle Fanning, Brendan Gleeson, Chris Messina, Sienna Miller, Zoe Saldana, Chris Cooper, Robert Glenister, Titus Welliver, Remo Girone, Max Casella, Miguel J. Pimentel, Gianfranco Terrin, Anthony Michael Hall, Chris Sullivan, Derek Mears, J.D. Evermore, Clark Gregg.
Director: Ben Affleck
Rating: R (for strong violence, language throughout, and some sexuality/nudity.)
Running Time: 128 Minutes
Release Date: December 25, 2016
Appian Way, Pearl Street Films, and Warner Bros.
Written by: Ben Affleck, adapted from the book “Live By Night” by Dennis Lehane.
Since he first climbed into the director’s chair for 2007’s Gone Baby Gone, Ben Affleck has rebranded himself as a multi-hyphenate in Hollywood – a writer, director, actor, and producer who saw his last project Argo win multiple Oscars, including Best Picture. Returning pen to paper for the first time since 2010’s The Town, and directing for the first time since 2012’s Argo, Affleck has adapted a second film from the work of writer Dennis Lehane, Live By Night, a gritty, throwback crime drama set in the 1920s and 1930s, Prohibition-era Boston.
Originally designed for Leonardo DiCaprio, who remains here as a producer, Affleck directs himself as Joe Coughlin, a soldier who fought in the first World War, only to return home disillusioned and soured on societal norms. His father is a cop (Brendan Gleeson) and Coughlin decides to start small in a new life of illicit action and behavior. Initially, he’s tied up in card heists and bank jobs. The behavior is justified twofold; a rebuke of his father’s stern and by-the-book law and order mentality and an anger over having to fight and face the atrocities of war.
Eventually, these behaviors bring Coughlin money and notoriety and no shortage of girls knocking down his door. He covets and scores Emma (Sienna Miller), the mistress of a brutal gangster (Robert Glenister). Ignoring warnings from people around him, Joe ends up busted, in prison, and Joe’s father blames his dealings with Emma as the main reason.
Framed, Joe ends up with life in prison for the death of three police officers, but because of his connections and a father’s loyalty to his son, he returns to society a few years later. With Emma out of the picture, he meets and falls another man’s girl, Graciella (Zoe Saldana). Seeing a future with her, he takes drug money and attempts to build a casino and hotel establishment. Now relocated to Tampa, Florida, and with a number of successful establishments, Joe and his clubs are targeted by a bomber and his empire, wealth, and safety perilously hang in the balance.
Wholly enveloped in a different time altogether, Affleck paints his film in a tableau of film noir flourishes, having famed cinematographer Robert Richardson bathe scenes with a conventional, but effective, gangster-movie light motif and atmosphere. Live By Night looks every bit as good as advertised, the costumes, a breathtaking authenticity to sets and production design, costuming and all the rest captures the mood Affleck is looking for expertly well. And the manner with which Affleck shuffles characters and storylines along is technically sound and proficient.
But man oh man, is this laborious to sit through. Affleck goes for dour and somber when telling this story. And while that may resemble Lehane’s source material to some extent, when rolling this out on screen for 130 minutes, Live By Night lacks the push and urgency needed to keep us building connections that keep us engaged.
Some critics have left the film scratching their heads, wondering how this movie, with seemingly everything a great movie needs to succeed, fails to mean much of anything. I can only offer this as an explanation…
The experience of watching Live By Night is like listening to a story or a lengthy joke from a skilled storyteller, known for delivering a great punchline or awesome payoff, only to have them never get to share that moment. Better yet, Live By Night is like listening to an EDM/dance track with a hype and amped up build but then never delivers a bass drop.
Affleck is good for awhile here in the leading role, but he blends too easily into the background to survive as a crucial focal point of the story. The cast is robust and impressive on paper, with Chris Cooper, Gleeson, Miller, Saldana, Chris Messina, and a strong turn by Elle Fanning giving the film jolts of energy. But Lehane seems to not care about his women all that much, and Affleck subscribes, falling a bit too much in love with his main character and a gun-running gangster mentality for this to offer much of a tale of redemption and/or salvation for all involved.
From most angles, Affleck’s fourth directorial feature looks the part, feels right, and should deliver the goods. Below-the-line, the film is a success. But in totality, the film never really takes flight or makes us care about this world of brutal gangsters, Mob bosses, the Mafia, frequent betrayal, romance, or moral bankruptcy. We have seen it all done better and more enthusiastically than what Affleck offers up here. The film feels rushed but slow, has lots to say but seems too tired to say it with any real passion.
Ultimately, Live By Night is a long night’s walk into mediocrity, a surprising misstep for Affleck as writer and director.
SHOULD I SEE IT?
- Fans of mob films and Prohibition-era action movies will love how this looks and feels, likely sending them out to preshows and ticket windows on opening weekend.
- Affleck is a talented filmmaker and he reminds us of that here at times. He also has assembled an impressive cast who keep us engaged throughout the movie’s near 130-minute running time.
- Technically, the film looks fantastic and from the costumes to the production design, Affleck’s team could not have done more to give us proper settings and authenticity with which he can tell his story.
- Boring is not a word I want to use to describe this, but man does this feel long and, well fine, boring.
- The movie just gives us looks and characters and action that we have seen before, in better movies, executed with more passion and excitement than what Affleck creates here.
- The whole movie looks heavy, bloated, and Affleck himself looks tired. I get the interest, but this is likely a movie we will forget and move on from and, you know what, no big deal, it happens to the best of us. Still excited, as you should be, to see what Ben brings us next.