'Live by Night' Review

Photo Credit: Warner Brothers Pictures
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Ben Affleck owes much of his career resurrection to his work as a director, even moreso than his work as an actor. Gone Baby Gone, The Town and Argo were a big part of his renaissance, but that comeback has taken a few recent hits thanks to Batman v Superman and The Accountant. Going back behind the camera seemed like a sure fire way to get him back on track once again, yet Live by Night is more frustrating than anything else.

By the standards of Affleck's past directorial work, and by the standards of films adapted from Dennis Lehane's novels, Live by Night can't help but fall short. The frustrating part comes from how much does work or threaten to work, but as much as Affleck's strengths as both a writer and director shine through at many points, his weaknesses shine through too many times as well.

Disillusioned WWI vet Joe Coughlin comes home to Boston ready to become an outlaw, if not a full on gangster. Yet he does have the misfortune to fall for the girlfriend of Boston gangster Albert White, and the added problem of having a policeman for a father. When his professional career as a stickup man and his personal affairs then fall apart, Joe comes out of prison ready to serve White's rival for a shot at revenge. With his old partner in tow, Joe is sent to Florida to disrupt and take over White's bootlegging operation, which he does to the point of building his own little empire. Along the way, he finds a new love, does battle with the KKK and tries to start his own casino, but his entanglements with both a local police chief and his daughter start a decisive chain reaction.

Affleck jump started his comeback by adapting Lehane's Gone Baby Gone, so he is coming full circle in a way by going back to Lehane's work. However, he isn't making another Gone Baby Gone as much as he seems to think he is making another Goodfellas at times. Like that mob classic, much of Live by Night's plot is more episodic than anything else, and the vast majority of the lead performance is done through narration.

Unfortunately for Affleck, he is no Martin Scorsese in making that kind of strategy work. In fact, those are his most fatal drawbacks, as the episodic string of plot lines and subplots would probably seem more at home in a 10-episode miniseries than a crammed two-hour movie. What's more, the constant narration makes Live by Night the exact opposite of a "show don't tell" movie, as far too many relationships, plot resolutions and character developments are explained and resolved through Affleck's narration and through quick montages, instead of letting us experience them in depth.

More than once, the most potentially interesting conflicts, relationships and developments in the film are snuffed out far too early, either with killing someone off or with rushing on to the movie's next episode. At least one big third act twist can be guessed pretty early after the first act, and for those bothered by the trend of "fridging" female characters as plot devices for the sake of a man's pain, this is probably not the movie for them.

Whether this is all on Affleck, or an unavoidable consequence of Lehane's book, is something those who read the book are best equipped to figure out. But as writer and director, Affleck does bear the brunt of responsibility either way. Still, just as he bears the brunt of the film's weaknesses, it is his remaining strengths that keep them at bay as much as possible, even if it’s not always enough.

Some of it comes through more shallow means than usual, as Affleck certainly goes more all out with costumes, recreations of older eras and overhead shots than ever before. He tries to match the moral complexity of Gone Baby Gone, the crime based character study and comradery of The Town, and the nail biting thrills from a decades-past story of Argo, yet only gets halfway there on all counts. But Affleck tries to use more visual style than usual to cover it up, and sometimes it manages to work.

While his plot and narration mistakes as a writer are often damaging, Affleck tries to cover it up with plenty of one-liners, banter and tough exchanges. This does play to Affleck’s strengths with dialogue, however, which go back as far as  Good Will Hunting. Even when the plot bogs down or skims over too much, Affleck usually has some kind of funny, intimidating and occasionally insightful bit of dialogue to keep up interest.

At least half of that is likely thanks to Lehane as much as Affleck, while another big piece of credit goes to casting as well.

Affleck himself is a somewhat mixed example, given that too much of his performance is through narration and that there may be too much of him period. With the focus so completely on him much of the way, it doesn’t leave that much room for other characters to get proper development and focus, although the movie might have worked much better if there was. Still, Affleck does get a share of moments that almost make it worth it, most notably in bantering with Chris Messina as his main partner-in-crime.

The first act mainly pairs Affleck with Sienna Miller as his first love and Brendan Gleeson as his father. Thanks to Miller’s adopted Irish accent and Gleeson’s regular speaking voice, one early dinner scene with them almost requires subtitles to fully understand. Otherwise, Miller and Gleeson are mainly victims of the narrative cutting their roles short just before reaching their full potential, although it’s still nothing compared to how Zoe Saldana is mostly sidelined after a promising start as Joe’s second love.

The arc that does reach its fullest potential, at least to a point, involves Chris Cooper as Joe’s police chief frenemy and Elle Fanning as his daughter. In the way it plays out, Live by Night comes closest to showing a real poignant cost of Joe’s actions, a dramatic irony and consequence, a side of moral complexity, and a fulfillment of early prophecy that what Joe puts out in the world would come back in ways he couldn’t predict.

Yet even here, one can’t help but wish these characters were allowed to be more than Joe’s personal plot devices, especially with Fanning’s Loretta. While a key scene between Affleck and Fanning is an emotional high point and hangs over the rest of the movie, the way Fanning’s arc is then cut off and resolved off screen without her is another costly example of the film’s “tell don’t show” philosophy.

Live by Night is lucky to have the likes of Fanning, Cooper, Miller, Messina and Gleeson despite undercutting them, along with Remo Girone and Robert Glenister as the warring mob bosses, Clark Gregg in a very rare appearance outside of the MCU and other guests like Anthony Michael Hall, Titus Welliver and Max Casella. Between them and Affleck, it makes it all the more tantalizing to imagine what they would have done with a better constructed movie.

Live by Night is surely a step backwards for Affleck as a director, but nowhere near the kind of giant backward steps he has fallen into over the years. Although 2016 has now had three Affleck films that didn’t fully live up to their promise, it says something that he still rose above Batman v Superman and The Accountant as an actor and nearly rises above Live by Night as a writer and director. Even when he slumps these days, it is still nowhere near the kind of embarrassing slumps of years past, with the possible exception of Batman v Superman that he can’t be blamed too much for.

With Live by Night, Affleck still has the flashes of what made him take off as a writer/director, but they are much more intermittent than in the past. The drop off mainly seems more steep because of how great his past three films behind the camera were, but hopefully there aren’t any steeper drops ahead any time soon.

For its best lines, scenes, performances and flashes of style, Live by Night just manages to get a six on the official TMN.com scale, although it is closer to a 5.5 split right down the middle.