Release date: 13th January 2017/Watch the trailer here
When Ben Affleck’s directorial back catalogue is comprised of Gone Baby Gone, The Town, and Best Picture winner Argo, it was perhaps inevitable that one day he’d have to make a film that would break his winning streak. What’s so surprising, however, is that that film ended up being Live By Night.
It had all the ingredients of another success: directed by, produced by, written by and starring Affleck, based on the novel by Gone, Baby, Gone and Shutter Island author Dennis Lehane, and set in Prohibition-era Boston; an area that Affleck has always been able to capture well in his films. The problem with Live By Night, though, is not that it’s a bad film – it’s just that it’s so completely lacking in anything that could have elevated it into becoming a great film.
Affleck plays Joe Coughlin, the son of a Boston police captain (Brendan Gleeson), who becomes an outlaw after feeling disillusioned with his experiences of following orders in World War I. Even so, he tries to avoid getting drawn into the world of organised crime, but a clandestine affair with the mistress of Irish gangster Albert White (Robert Glenister), Emma Gould (Sienna Miller), makes it impossible. Following a bank robbery gone awry and a double-cross, Coughlin finds himself in prison, and upon his release he is determined to take revenge on White. He joins forces with White’s rival, Italian mobster Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone), and relocates to Florida to manage the Pescatore family’s rum-running operation.
Live By Night loses most of its grit the minute it moves away from Boston; the Florida setting making for some beautiful moments of cinematography but little else. In Florida, Coughlin meets and eventually marries Graciela Suarez (Zoe Saldana), a Cuban immigrant, which somewhere along the way invokes the wrath of the KKK. Evidently, an awful lot happens within the two hour runtime, but somehow the plot still manages to meander along at a snail’s pace, never feeling as urgent or exciting as it should do, given all that it attempts to cram in.
Live By Night‘s somewhat disjointed feel is only exacerbated by its wasted cast of supporting characters. Miller and Saldana are given frustratingly little to work with, merely used as decorative props in fabulous dresses for Coughlin to sleep with, like some sort of Boston-accented James Bond. Elle Fanning has much more to sink her teeth into as Loretta Figgis, daughter of the local sheriff (Chris Cooper), and a heroin addict turned evangelical preacher, but her scene-stealing performance is given far too little screen time and she is gone almost as quickly as she appears.
Yet considering that the whole plot of Live By Night revolves around the life and times of Joe Coughlin, Affleck’s performance is entirely lifeless, with him constantly looking nothing other than miserable and uncomfortable in comically too-big suits. His total lack of charisma makes for a protagonist that is never compelling enough to carry the weight of an entire film, meaning that any intended emotional heft suffers as a result. Affleck has consistently proven to be a better director than he is an actor, but that’s barely displayed here. It’s a film that feels half-hearted and lacklustre, missing the enthusiasm and a violent edge that could have made it something more than mediocre. Live By Night is still passable, but it’s disappointing that this is all that it manages to be, when Affleck has set his bar so much higher in the past.