Ben Affleck had quite a busy 2016. He appeared in two critically snubbed, major box office hits, starred in a mildly offensive action film about the guy that does your taxes and dealt with the ramifications of a crumbling marriage. Maybe that’s why he didn’t have the time to make a good movie.
Live By Night feels like the result of a first-time actor-director. If this were released a decade ago, it would make a lot of sense. But after both The Town and Argo, Ben Affleck has proven he knows what he’s doing behind and in front of the camera. And that’s what makes Live By Night seems like such a major misstep.
The story surrounds soldier-turned-robber-turned-gangster Joe Coughlin (Affleck) as they navigate prohibition and Irish/Italian politics of the 1920s. Adapted from a novel by Dennis Lehane, Live By Night struggles in its adaptation from page to screen. There are about six different subplots going on throughout the film, and the lack of focus within the 2-hour time frame is dizzying. At a surface level, Live By Night appears like it should be a good movie. It’s a period piece with a lot of notable actors. However, the movie never makes it past the surface level.
The film goes wrong by taking itself too seriously. From start to finish it is riddled with clichés, yet addresses the audience with a brooding tone. This causes the movie to feel ridiculous and campy. The dialogue is cheesy, and most of the attempts towards humor bomb hard.
In a lot of ways, Live By Night reminded me of high school theatre. The sound stages are always a little too visible, and the mise-en-scene is always a little too staged. All of the actors give stilted performances as if they can’t get over the presence of the camera.
Worse than just being poorly constructed, Live By Night left me feeling very gross. Violence and racism are constant themes throughout the film, but they are only used as an intensifier. The movie is trying to condemn these both while simultaneously benefitting from them. It’s like that one kid you know who claims that they are against racism but keeps on making racist jokes in order to ‘expose’ how bad they are. Similarly, there are only a couple of female characters, are both of them are entirely catered towards the male gaze and Ben Affleck’s mouth.
There are a couple of moments and scenes that are entertaining or at least distracting from the tediousness of this overlong film. The thing is, Live By Night is not miles away from being an enjoyable movie. It needs some tonal and structural focus and a couple dozen fewer clichés, but there is some potential here. It reminded me a lot of The Monuments Men, a George Clooney film that seemed like it should have been an awards contender but was released too late. After watching both films, it’s clear that the producers knew they had a bit of a flop on their hands. One can only hope that Affleck’s Batman film gets him on the right track…