As writer/director/star, Affleck offers a dull and overstuffed film that has no idea what it wants to be
The last time Ben Affleck adapted a novel by his fellow Bostonian Dennis Lehane, a master of noir and mystery, it happened to be his first role as the director of a feature film. With 2007’s Gone Baby Gone, a thoroughly satisfying and expertly measured missing child story, Affleck managed to shake off the stains of his Bennifer days, establishing himself a clever actor-turned-director and earning almost immediate comparisons to Clint Eastwood, who himself had just struck gold with the Lehane adaptation Mystic River. This time around, taking its cues from the prohibition-era novel of the same name, Affleck assembles a stellar cast to work through a perfunctory gangster flick, an unfocused and flat film that shows none of the promise of his debut.
From the get go, Live by Night cannot decide what kind of movie it wants to be, its plodding journey to the end filled with characters with secrets everybody seems to know, double crosses you won’t really care about, and an Affleck so large and imposing post Batman that he physically fills every scene, but emotionally appears to be somewhere along the lines of 2016’s press tour meme.
Worse still, he makes the fatal error of adding abundant narration to the story, his Joe Coughlin, a reluctant soldier turned sorry-not-sorry hoodlum, becoming an unnecessary bridging device, his whispered Boston accent informing the viewer of every single thing going on.
Add to this a circuitous narrative structure – the film opens with Coughlin bandaged and bedridden, flashes back to how he got there through a messy love affair and double crosses, picking up the story again, ditching two of the principal players and shifting the action from Massachusetts to Florida, by way of interaction with sexy Cubans, prejudiced rednecks, and Christian zealots – and the film begins to flailing latch on to the nearest genre it can find. Is it gangster film or a revenge drama? An exploration of race or a morality tale? Unable to find its footing, Affleck somehow manages to spread Lehane’s sprawling tale too thin, with every character involved the worse for it.
It all feels like a monumental waste, considering how good it looks. The gorgeous period details are framed well, the production design making the most out of the change in temperature as Coughlin moves south, saturating what become a violent noir in shades of pastel. The action scenes – the standout being a thrilling car chase involving three Model T Fords trundling through Boston – are lively, though edited in a way that it often is hard to tell who’s doing what, all the worse at the grand finale when you’ll have no idea whose side any of the actors are on.
Affleck, in both his direction and his performance, allows Coughlin to slip through his fingers, with the audience never really gaining an appreciation for how he is supposed to be a good soul tied up with a business from which he cannot escape. In the end, the film is much like Sienna Miller’s Irish accent, patchy and forced.
Verdict: ★★☆☆☆ Undoubtedly the poorest in Affleck’s collection as a director, this hodgepodge of pulp tropes takes everything too seriously and loses itself with messy execution
Live by Night (15A/128mins) is released nationwide on January 13th