Live by Night
by George Wolf
The jury on Ben Affleck’s skills as a filmmaker came in about one and a half films ago. After Gone Baby Gone and halfway through The Town, it was clear this guy can direct. Argo hammered that point home but good. And don’t forget that Oscar for co-writing Good Will Hunting.
But after all that’s good about Live by Night, seeing Leonardo DiCaprio’s name in the producer credits instantly makes you wonder how much more effective he might have been in the lead role.
Instead, Affleck casts himself as Joe Coughlin, an “outlaw” in prohibition-era Boston who runs afoul of the local crime boss after getting cozy with the wrong dame (Sienna Miller). A few years and double-crosses later, Irish Joe is working Florida for the Italian mob, cornering the rum market and laying complicated groundwork for a sprawling casino.
Give Affleck credit for challenging himself with a big slice of genre filmmaking, and he comes close to pulling it off. In adapting the novel by Dennis Lehane (Gone Baby Gone), Affleck pens a smart script that’s full of juicy twists, satisfying callbacks and requisite noir touchstones that never feel overdone (though the questionable voiceover pushes it). We also get consistently interesting characters brought to life by a stellar supporting cast. Through Brendan Gleeson and Zoe Saldana to Chris Cooper, Elle Fanning and beyond, we see soul after soul facing serious moral compromises, and, to the film’s detriment, all resonate more deeply than Affleck.
This is Joe’s journey, rife with sin, judgement, hypocrisy and redemption, but Affleck never makes Joe worthy of being the center of all this gravity. Though the character isn’t that far removed from the outlaw Affleck played effectively in The Town, his move to genre actor, classic jawline aside, is clearly unnatural.
The film often looks fantastic, with nifty period details, sweeping panoramas, nicely backlit interiors and exciting shootouts, but Affleck’s incessantly gradual pace eventually takes a toll. In reaching for a sweeping gangster saga, Affleck includes too much plodding exposition that makes the film’s just-over two hour running time feel a good bit longer.
Though Affleck makes sure his film pushes all the genre buttons, Live by Night ranks as an ambitious overreach, never quite finding the right mix to make it truly memorable.