Live By Night has been Ben Affleck’s passion project for several years. He started working on the adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s novel since shortly after it was published in 2012. However, it kept getting pushed back as be strove to prove he was a director worth the film’s hefty budget, and also while he honed the script (yes, he wrote the screenplay too, as well as directing and starring).
After Argo won the Best Picture Oscar, Warner let him loose on Live By Night, but to be honest, it might have been worth delaying it a little longer and bringing someone in who could have tightened the script and made more of the themes that should have tied it together.
The film opens in 1926, with Affleck as Joe Coughlin, an outlaw making a living from crime in Prohibition-era Boston. Joe wants to avoid getting involved with either the Irish or Italian mobs, who are involved in a bitter and exceedingly bloody turf war. However, after getting involved with Irish mob boss Albert White’s girlfriend, he is nearly killed by White and ends up in prison. Upon his release, Joe finds himself in the employ of Boston Mafia head honcho Maso Pescatore. He gets sent down to Florida to help run booze and build up the Italian mob’s operation down there, as well as to further destroy Albert White’s empire.
As Joe becomes an increasingly powerful man in Florida, he finds himself in an ever more complicated and violent world. Different ethnic groups vie and fight for what they want – not afraid to spill blood in the process – the Ku Klux Klan operates halfway between an ideological group and a bunch of gangster, and the law and religion are all mixed up in it in ways that aren’t always for the good. Dangerous men feel they can kill with impunity because of who they’re protected by, and Joe must find a way to build an empire of drinking and gambling, navigating his way through as part politician and part killer.
None of that is made easier when he falls in love with a black, Cuban woman called Graciela (Zoe Saldana).
You almost have to feel sorry for Ben Affleck. He’s obviously put the whole thing together in the hope the movie would be a classic of the genre. It’s a big, expensive and sprawling tale of bad men doing bad things, and an antihero who has a massive body count but is increasingly bothered by what he’s doing.
The problems almost exclusively come down to the script, which is too loose, clumsy, clichéd and loses track of the thematic core of what it’s doing. In its desire to unpack the complexity of this quagmire of law, race, ethnicity, religion, gangsters and violence, it often forgets the bigger picture. For example, Joe’s entire life in Florida is supposedly about trying to destroy Albert White and eventually allow him to get personal revenge on him, but the film forgets about that for about an hour, so when it becomes a big thing again towards the end, it’s difficult to care.
Live By Night’s sprawl leads to plenty of great moments, but a lack of cohesion. You can feel the echoes of everything from The Godfather to Goodfellas, with Affleck striving for something as transcendent as those film. In small, often thrilling, sections it provides it, but he never quite manages to tie all those sections together.
While Ben should have passed the script to someone else, he does put in a pretty creditable performance and as a director shows that Argo wasn’t a fluke, with handsome visuals and a real eye for building a cinematic world. As mentioned, some of the movie’s episodic moments are extremely good, especially when it brings in (and then generally kills off) an intriguing, complicated character who adds a few fireworks to the mix.
it’s almost perverse that the minor characters are so good, but the stories and themes that are supposed to arc over the whole movie are generally rather dull, and far too often they’re riven with uninteresting cliché. At moments Affleck seems to be reaching for an overall critique of an American brand of capitalism built on the back of bloodshed, racism and people clawing over one another, but it never quite comes together, except in a few rather leaden, overly blunt scenes.
It also has an odd contradiction of having several female characters who are built up as complex and three-dimensional rather than just window dressing, but ultimately it treats all of them in a rather disposable way. The men in the film are people in their own right, but the women are only important for how they affect Joe. It appears to be completely inadvertent, but the film ultimately says one thing and does another when it comes to its female characters.
Overall Verdict: Affleck should certainly get kudos for aiming high and trying to create a gangster classic, but he should have realised that while he can direct, his screenwriting isn’t up to the job.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac
Deleted Scenes With Optional Commentary