I have been a big fan of Ben Affleck’s since his collaborations with Kevin Smith in his strongest trio of films; ‘Mallrats’, ‘Chasing Amy’ and ‘Dogma’. Affleck’s career has been a rollercoaster – there have been the highs of the Oscar for co-writing ‘Good Will Hunting’ and the lows of the tabloid fodder relationship with Jennifer Lopez; also his co-star in the critically-panned ‘Gigli’. The transition to directing has taken Affleck back into the realm of the critically-acclaimed, with ‘The Town’, ‘Gone Baby Gone’ and ‘Argo’. I had high hopes for ‘Live By Night’ – I found the trailer visually stunning and I’m a sucker for anything set in the 1920s-1930s. Unfortunately, the film did not quite live up to my high expectations.
The story follows reluctant gangster Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck) – an Irish-American policeman’s son, a bank robber sharing a moll (Sienna Miller) with his arch-nemesis Albert White. A robbery goes wrong, policemen end up dead and so does his love. This leads Coughlin to team up with an Italian-American kingpin and jetting off to Tampa, Florida to try to force White out of the rum bootlegging business down there. Coughlin finds love again (this time with Zoe Saldana) and becomes a successful ‘businessman’, despite having to contend with the KKK, the local police chief (Chris Cooper) and his evangelical Christian daughter (Elle Fanning). Affleck has certainly assembled an impressive array of acting talent, even recruiting the likes of Brendan Gleeson for the small role of his father. Chris Cooper is, unsurprisingly, particularly impressive. Affleck has, of course, made the fatal mistake of casting himself in the lead role, something best avoided for his future directorial efforts.
The film is sumptuous to look at – the costumes and scenery are enough to keep the eye entertained, if not the heart or brain. Where the film is flawed, is the story and screenplay (adapted by Affleck himself). This is surprising, given that it is based on a novel by Dennis Lehane (writer of ‘Shutter Island’, ‘Mystic River’, ‘Gone Baby Gone’ and excellent Tom Hardy film ‘The Drop’). I have discovered that there is a trilogy of Joe Coughlin books and perhaps Affleck has tried to shoe-horn all three into this one film. The editing is terrible – both structurally and in at least one instance of cringe-worthily bad continuity. This is one of those films that should have finished twenty minutes before it did – the final act feels tacked on, pointless and serves its characters very poorly.
Live By Night is not bad enough to write Affleck off as a director. I’m still hopeful that he can salvage the character of Batman from the Zack Snyder travesty of last year. In some ways, this film is a leap ahead for him – it is his most visually impressive. Perhaps he should go back to original screenwriting, rather than adapting, next time and see if he can reach the dizzy heights of ‘Good Will Hunting’ once more. I feel bad for Ben – after the critical mauling of ‘Batman vs Superman’ and now again, with ‘Live By Night’. I want him to do better and believe he can do better. This is hopefully just another blip in what has been an extremely uneven career, and I look forward to seeing Affleck at his peak once more.
Rating: 7 / 10
DIRECTOR: BEN AFFLECK
STARRING: BEN AFFLECK, ELLE FANNING, BRENDAN GLEESON, SIENNA MILLER, ROBERT GLENISTER, ZOE SALDANA