Overview: Based on Dennis Lehane’s novel, Live by Night follows a bandit who, through a series of unfortunate circumstances, rises as a successful crime boss during the Prohibition era. Warner Bros. Pictures; 2016; Rated R; 129 minutes.
Sleep by Day: The opening narration, mumbled by Ben Affleck’s bandit, Joe Coughlin, with all the energy of a somnambulist, doesn’t inspire much confidence. Nor does the next half hour of hastily put together character introductions featuring a who’s who of talent with impenetrable accents in serious need of ADR. The film shows its first sign of a pulse during an impressive car chase, but before we can get too excited, we’re back to mumble-ville as characters deliver hushed lines of faux importance to each other about destiny and penance with all the reverence of reading a menu. None of these characters seem to care about what they’re saying, and it’s hard for the viewer to care either or even muster the energy to decipher it. This opening act of the film is supposed to endear us to Coughlin, give us a sense of his struggle and lack of purpose, but it’s clear from the film’s reliance on narration that none of these things make their way through in a way that resembles character development. So we’re stuck following a heavy-lidded gangster in an ill-fitted suit who makes for a block of man, instead of an interesting character.
Tampa Nights: When Coughlin is sent to Tampa after a three-year stint in prison to build a rum empire and get his revenge on the man who killed his girl, we’re reminded of Affleck’s visual acumen as a director. In Florida, we’re at least given a setting that feels somewhat underexplored in this era of crime film. Ybor City is given all the cultural richness and beautiful sunset shots worthy of the film’s production design. Coughlin is no more interesting or awake than when we first met him, but at least the setting feels alive and there’s rhythm to be found in the Black-Cubano music and dance that fills the spaces of coastal clubs. Still, the language is unimpressive and unimportant, offering little insight to these people and leaving the plot development to the banal narration.
It’s difficult to believe that Affleck, who ingratiated us to the complexities of his characters in Gone Baby Gone, The Town, and Argo, wrote the limp stand-ins that populate Live by Night. Zoe Saldana’s Graciella Corrales, who goes from Coughlin’s business contact to lover within the span of minutes, is barely a character. She exists to question Coughlin’s capabilities for cruelty and as a plot-point, but we don’t get any sense of her. The same could be said for Chris Cooper’s corrupt Tampa sheriff, Irving Figgis, who the film uses as a friend turned enemy without giving us any sense of comradery between the two, except in the brief moments right before they become enemies. The pacing of the film is a mess that does no favors to the characters, making the film feel narratively bereft and tediously dull as we’re forced to watch the supposed importance of characters we were never made to care about.
Repent: There are brief moments throughout the film where Affleck’s talent as a writer does shine through, even though the pacing still betrays their fullest potential. A scene midway through the film gives us a confrontation between Coughlin and Irving’s KKK-member brother-in-law, Loomis (Matthew Maher). Blending levity and much-needed tension, Affleck gives us one of the only scenes where Coughlin shows an inkling of the kind of charisma that make crime figures such compelling leads. Chris Messina makes a strong impression as Coughlin’s schlubish partner, Dion Bartolo, both due to his performance and Affleck’s interest in the character, one that comes across as far greater than his interest in Coughlin. And Elle Fanning walks away as the film’s MVP as Loretta Figgis, a heroin addict turned tent-show preacher with the power to stop Coughlin. Both Dion and Loretta seem more like the characters that Affleck has built his directorial career on, and one can’t help but feel that he was hampered by adapting a novel with a lead that fell outside of his wheelhouse as both actor and director.
Live by Night is a miss, made all the more frustrating by the fact it feels like Affleck didn’t even swing fully. While the film never feels like it takes off and exists as a series of starts, there’s an action-driven climax that’s impeccably shot and orchestrated. Yes, its edge is dulled by the fact that we don’t care about any of these paper people getting gunned down on-screen, but it’s also a reminder that even at his worst, Affleck belongs in a director’s chair. The climax featuring a machine-gun firing Coughlin is reminiscent of the kinds of gangster films with which WB made a name for themselves in the ’30s. There’s a depth of field, a sense of confidence, and an understanding of consequence that makes us wonder where this guy was for the rest of the film. Afterwards, the film resumes its stumbling trail to the finish line, complete with a hurried and forced conclusion and an awkward ending the audience at this particular screening found laughable. But for a brief moment in Live by Night, we were reminded that a director controlled what can otherwise be considered a test showreel for a Live by Night we’ll never see.
Overall: Live by Night is ambient noise surrounded by nice images, and the first misstep in Ben Affleck’s career as a writer-director. Still, so few directors are blessed with a pristine filmography that it’s best not to let this hamper our optimism for Affleck’s future as a filmmaker. Live by Night is one to forget. Hell, we’ve already forgotten it.
Featured Image: Warner Bros. Pictures