Fun fact: as part of his deal with Warner Brothers to sign on for a multi-picture deal as the new Batman, Ben Affleck asked in return that they green light his next project. That project, which Affleck directs and stars in, is an adaptation of the Dennis Lehane novel Live By Night, which won an Edgar Award in 2013 for Novel of the Year. Less fun fact: the making of this film is far more interesting then the finished project, a boring combination of cliches and tedium, likely explaining what made it this years first big bomb.
Regardless of your familiarity with the source material, you likely know how this story goes. A mobster with a heart of gold loses the love of his life, and after a brief period in jail, looks to regain his fortune and exact revenge on the people who took his life away from him. Simple enough, that is were it not that this plot was in conflict with another plot going on simultaneously. While the film opens with promises of Mob warfare and Boston shootouts, it quickly invites distracting subplots in Florida about the KKK, religious extremists, the end of prohibition, attempts to open a casino, and a barely focused on romance between Affleck and Zoe Saldana. The films structure crumbles due to a lack of any narrative threads to connect the two stories; the mob story gets the first thirty minutes, then the hour afterwards focuses on all of the Florida plot lines, then brings back the original Mob storyline for the last thirty minutes despite having gone unmentioned for the past hour. Making matters worse is the borderline monotone narration by Affleck that occurs throughout the films runtime, more likely to put audiences to sleep then pull them further into the film.
The opening minutes of the film do show promise, with a car chase that feels authentic to its time period, and manages to remain thrilling while not feeling like a hollywood production. Likewise, theres beautiful cinematography that makes even boring scenes of dialogue pleasant to look at. Supporting Affleck is also a cast of goof side characters, with Chris Cooper in particular providing a lot of range for his small role in the film. These are small parts to enjoy when compared to the films many problems, but this (as well as the original source material) show how a good film could easily have been made.
Live By Night‘s biggest problem is Ben Affleck’s portrayal of Joe Coughlin, and the efforts he takes to keep his character likable. Coughlin is a gangster, but keeps trying to put up this pretense of being closer to Robin Hood, stealing from other gangsters and only killing when necessary. But once the films plot gets moving, Affleck begins killing people left and right, while still trying to keep this pretense of being a great guy, and not like those other gangsters who do the exact same things. The film tries to distract us by showing how much he loves his girlfriend (Zoe Saldana), but she serves no purpose other then to strengthen him as a character. When the film ends, you don’t feel sorry for Coughlin’s plights and troubles, because you know earned those through his actions. No number of witty one-liners and smirks can excuse the fact that our main character is an unlikable murderer and criminal, who’s made even less likable through his holier-then-thou attitude.
Speaking of unlikable, this films’ villains are every shade of racist awfulness, to the point of being almost cartoonish. In case you didn’t already know who the bad guy in a scene is, just wait for any number of sexist remarks, racial slurs or plain vulgarities to come out of someones mouth, before promptly being killed by Affleck, to make him look like even more of a hero. It’s an arbitrary and absurd way to try and endear Coughlin to the audience, as if to say “our protaganist may be a law breaking murderer, but at least he isn’t a racist!” This is nothing to say of the great-white-hope stereotype that Affleck’s character represents, as only he and his band of good white mobsters can protect the Cuban mob down in Florida (who were doing fine before he showed up, and we know can defend themselves) against the bad white mobsters who all throw racial vulgarities like its going out of style. Some films may paint with broad strokes, but Live By Night sets itself apart by throwing the goddamn bucket of paint at a wall, looking back at audiences and expecting to be applauded for it.
Lastly, I would be remiss if we didn’t discuss Elle Fanning’s subplot and its impact on the film, or complete lack thereof. In the middle of one scene, halfway through the film, we are introduced to Loretta Figgis (Fanning), a girl who we are told is going to Hollywood to become an actress, and is completely forgotten. Later, her character comes back as major religious figure, blocking Coughlin’s plan to build a casino, implying that she will become the film’s new main antagonist (at this point, the third the film has had within its first hour). After this plot line reaches its conclusion, however, the film unceremoniously kills the character off-screen, mentions it briefly in a single passing line of dialogue, and goes about its way, as if nothing happened and we didn’t just spend an hour of the films running time on a plot that made no difference in the end. What is already a boring and unneeded story within the plot serves to further display how even the best directors need people to sometimes tell them no. Likely, the only reason this depressing, boring and ultimately pointless subplot was allowed in was due to Affleck’s complete control over the project, as other creative teams would have likely excluded it, instead putting more work into the other lacking stories going on in the film.
Ben Affleck has made bad films before, and it’s likely that Live By Night will quickly become forgotten overtime. This is no excuse, however, for a film that is teeming with cliche’s and predictability, while sorely lacking in any merit or effort. At the time of this reviews release, the movie is estimated to lose Warner Brothers over 50 million dollars. Much like the hardships Affleck goes through in the film, I cant help but feel this is entirely deserved.
Arbitrary Numerical Rating: 4 Superior Boston Crime Films out of 10