So Ben Affleck’s disappointed that no-ones talking about Live by Night?
Uh well…there might be a reason for that, Ben.
In spite of his Batman vs. Superman woes, Ben Affleck has plenty to be proud of in his directorial pursuits. Ol’ Benny’s experienced plenty of success on that front, with most of his directorial features being fairly well-received, to say nothing of the runaway success and Oscar darling of 2012 Argo. So yeah, I think the bar was set reasonably high for Live by Night, both written and directed by Affleck, and a film that he really seemed to have a passion for. Unfortunately, I’m not entirely sure how much that passion really shined through in the end.
Affleck’s Prohibition-era gangster drama seems like it should be far less flat than it actually turned out to be. Much of where Live by Night goes astray seems to be in its story and plot, both of which come across as a real mess on-screen. The story came across bloated and meandering, and often at odds with itself about what story it was actually trying to tell, and what the point of that story actually was. Live by Night as it rolls on just keeps throwing more and more themes and ideas out, and while all of them are interesting in their own right, the lack of commitment and focus on any of them by the film means that none of them feel overly poignant or nuanced.
The plot is similarly chaotic, bouncing between characters and plot points at a rapid pace without much in the way of a smooth rhythm to any of it: I was often thoroughly confused throughout Live by Night as to what was actually happening and why it was happening, and it didn’t take long for me to really switch off and disengage with the film as a result. The frequent lack of clear stakes and well-realised motivations for its characters just led to Live by Night feeling hollow, in spite of its seeming profundity. By the end of Live by Night, I was less fulfilled and more just confused as to what, if anything, I was meant to get out of it. Given the film’s spotty story, the fact that that Live by Night’s screenplay was adapted from a novel didn’t come as much surprise, since Live by Night has all the symptoms of more hit than miss novel-to-film adaptations.
Of course, it could be said that Live by Night was intended to be a character piece more than anything given its extreme focus on protagonist Joe Coughlin, portrayed by Affleck himself, but even on this level Live by Night just falls flat. Joe Coughlin is a chaotic character (and not in a good way) whose motivations and core drivers are frequently unclear and inconsistent, and the film itself seems confused with how we should engage with the character. His murky and break-neck shifting motivations come off as an earnest attempt to create a “deep” character, but it just never comes together in a meaningful way. And speaking of “meaningful”, every attempt Live by Night makes to try and inject Joe’s various relationships with some depth and genuine emotion falls incredibly flat. Most of these moments boil down to staggeringly stereotypical and uninspired moments that feel curiously dated and stale, and never really go beyond anything other than surface-level. In short, Joe Coughlin just feels like a cypher, and its difficult to ever really feel invested in anything he does as a result.
With that said, however, muddled characters are better than no characters, and beyond Affleck’s Coughlin, flat, tropey characters is all Live by Night otherwise has to offer. Pretty much everyone is either one-dimensional, a blatant trope, or a cartoonish stereotype. This is particularly embarrassing in regards to the ways in which the film touches on the very tense and precarious nature of 1920s-era US racial tensions, where having such flat characters just makes all the attempts made by Live by Night to really say something on this topic to come across is overly simplistic and ham-fisted, and in the case of one of the film’s primary antagonists, borderline comical…and again, not necessarily in a good way.
And it’s a shame that Live by Night’s character don’t have more to offer, since its star-studded cast’s performances were one of the film’s higher points. Ben Affleck delivers a strong performance, which is to be expected, but he had plenty of competition from his supporting cast, all of whom did the best with what they were given, which was not very goddamn much. I felt particularly bad for Zoe Saldana; whose role saw her get truly shafted as far getting anything particularly meaningful and interesting to do on-screen. Sienna Miller was only afforded slightly more breathing room in that regard, but in all both women were stuck with very flat and one-dimensional roles. More on the positive side though, I have to give props to Live by Night’s set and costume design, both of which were genuinely striking and impressive as far as feeling authentic.
Really, Live by Night was something I feel more sorry for than I am actively angry or frustrated by. Affleck’s passion and enthusiasm for this project has seemed pretty evident from the interviews he’s done, and it’s usually a good sign when you have someone helming a project that they’re truly passionate about. Sadly, passion and enthusiasm can’t overcome Live by Night’s pretty glaring and apparent problems. Live by Night feels a film that’s going for the same kind of big-time sweeping crime drama likes of which was made famous by De Palma, Scorsese, and Coppola, but unfortunately it falls spectacularly short of the mark that films like Scarface, Goodfellas, and The Godfather set in that regard. Its also the first time that Ben’s “directing and starring” formula has felt more like a vanity act than sensible filmmaking, especially given how much of the focus is on him and his performance in Live by Night at the expense of the rest of the cast.
It’s a shame to have to rail so hard on Live by Night, but its few charms can’t overcome its glaring flaws at the scripting and editing level. Live by Night represents a truly staggering (and hopefully rare misfire) from Ben Affleck as a director. Let’s hope that this turns out to be aberration, and that Affleck’s next directorial feature knocks our collective socks off, but until then, Live by Night is one to pass on.