By Jarrod Jones. The man has the hair, the jawline, the furrowed brow. He has the charisma and the looks. There’s no argument that Ben Affleck is a tried-and-true movie star, but whoo — does this guy look awkward in a double-breasted suit. And yet, somehow, we usually can spot him draped in the loose folds of some hastily-tailored number, which is often seen onscreen struggling fruitlessly to keep the man’s mantle-length shoulders in check. Zoot suits and floppy fedoras aside, Ben Affleck’s never looked more at home in a movie than he has in Live by Night, lovingly framed by writer/director Ben Affleck.
Of course that depends on when you happen to catch Mr. Affleck in this sanguine adaptation of the 2012 novel of the same name by Dennis Lehane. Between frequent grimaces there’s that aw-shucks Affleck from the Aughties glimmering underneath, and even though he’s found playing against some of the more seasoned character actors out there (Chris Cooper and Brendan Gleeson being two examples of a solid cast), Affleck oftentimes finds that he’s the one in control of the room, and that’s when he begins to shift around in his ludicrously huge Big Man slacks. It would seem that Ben Affleck, Director, has found himself at odds with Ben Affleck, Movie Star.
Affleck is Joe Coughlin, a World War I vet who returns home to find that he’s developed a taste for mercenary work. (“I left a soldier, and I came home an outlaw,” he grumbles over narration.) Seeing no future in working for the local mobs (both of which, knowing talent when they see it, vie for his attention), Joe carves out a living as a stick-up man, knocking over card games and such without so much as a penny to kick up to anyone else. Of course, this being a pulpy gangster flick, Joe has to go and louse things up by keeping time with a local mob boss’ main squeeze (a scarcely recognizable Sienna Miller). It’s not long before the other shoe drops, the offended parties get wise, and Joe eats a big ol’ slice of humble pie.
That would be enough for one movie, but Lehane’s story has so much more in store for Joe — a move to steaming hot Tampa, betrayals, melodrama, a literal murderer’s row of heavies (including the Ku Klux Klan), and a tacked-on love story (with Zoe Saldana) because why the hell not — before the credits roll over its painfully boilerplate finale. That’s right. Live by Night ain’t a great movie. It’s an ambitious one, I’ll give it that — Affleck is director enough to at least dress up some of this overstuffed turkey — but that ambition is undercut by the man at the helm himself.
Affleck paints Lehane’s narrative with only the broadest of strokes, which makes Live by Night a pretty messy thing to watch. Narrative beats remain arrhythmic thanks to a noticeably unpolished screenplay by Affleck himself, which means the story (and with it, Joe) jumps from one tormentor to the next, never once allowing the arc of the film to properly mount towards its bloody finale (which ultimately occurs out of necessity more than anything else). The biggest victim, however? The film’s theme, a hurdle Affleck never seems to clear. (It has something to do about legacy, the manipulative nature of religion, and a person’s duty to make the world a better place, I think.)
On a technical level, Affleck’s skill has become paralleled with another workhorse Warner Bros. veteran. In both execution and sepia-toned period style, Live by Night might be the first Clint Eastwood film Affleck has ever made, which is a fine thing considering the studio loves to make bloated, ponderous, crime-ridden dramas when it isn’t busy making superhero flicks (a subgenre Mr. Affleck currently finds himself hamstrung by).
It’s tradition, after all; Warner Bros. has always been known for its lurid gangster pictures, and in that arena, Mr. Affleck acquits himself as best he can. You can’t say this movie isn’t pretty, though that’s perhaps the only way to appreciate Live by Night: the film splashes horrific (but beautifully realized) violence across the screen, interspersed by gorgeous vistas and stately portraits of our auteur in repose.
Directed by Ben Affleck.
Produced by Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Davisson, Ben Affleck, and Jennifer Todd.
Screenplay by Ben Affleck.
Based on ‘Live by Night’ by Dennis Lehane.
Starring Ben Affleck, Elle Fanning, Brendan Gleeson, Chris Messina, Sienna Miller, Zoe Saldana, and Chris Cooper.
Rated R because these things get messy.
4.5 out of 10