THE STORY – It’s the Roaring `20s and Prohibition hasn’t stopped the flow of booze in an underground network of gangster-run speakeasies. The opportunity to gain power and money is there for any man with enough ambition and nerve, and Joe Coughlin, the son of the Boston Police superintendent, long ago turned his back on his strict upbringing for the spoils of being an outlaw. But even among criminals there are rules, and Joe breaks a big one: crossing a powerful mob boss by stealing his money and his moll.
THE CAST – Ben Affleck, Elle Fanning, Brendan Gleeson, Chris Messina, Sienna Miller, Zoe Saldana & Chris Cooper
THE TEAM – Ben Affleck (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 129 Minutes
By Matt N.
It was bound to happen sooner or later. As Joe E. Brown once said in “Some Like It Hot,” “Well, nobody is perfect.” And that is exactly how we now must refer to Ben Affleck as a director, for he has made his first objectively bad film. “Live By Night” is too ambitious for its own good and ends up devouring itself due to a brief runtime that does not allow for moments, character beats and implications to play themselves out. “Live By Night” gets a lot right in its technical achievements and in that regard you can see the growth that Affleck displays as a director. He’s not even objectively bad in this film as an actor. However, “Live By Night” is a misguided opportunity at what could have been something much more.
It’s the 1920’s during the Prohibition Era and Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck), World War I veteran and son of a Boston Police Captain (Brendan Gleeson) is a troublemaking outlaw who is madly in love with Emma Gould (Sienna Miller). The problem is that she belongs to one of the most notorious crime bosses in Boston, Albert White (Robert Glenister). After an encounter with Albert leads to Joe spending a three-year stint in prison, upon release, he relocates to Florida with his right-hand man Dion Bartolo (Chris Messina) to plan his revenge against Albert and get away from the violent world he lives in for good.
The best way I can explain the problem with “Live By Night” would be this: imagine if you took an entire season’s worth of material for HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” and tried to cram it into a two-hour film. This sprawling story of corruption, broken allegiances and redemption would have been a transfixing mini-series had Affleck instead opted to bring it to television, but instead we get a story that moves way too fast and lacks a consistent pace and tone. Affleck really refined how well he could tell a story with his previous three films “Gone Baby Gone,” “The Town,” and the Oscar Winning “Argo.” However, with “Live By Night” it appears the writer, actor, and director has bitten off more than he can chew and the result is the most un-engaging film of his filmography so far as a director. Performers feel wasted due to lack of screen time and moments of depth. Chris Messina manages to somehow stand out the most amongst the many supporting actors and actresses in this film as Joe’s right-hand man but everyone else is neither memorable nor appear to be having fun with the material.
From a technical standpoint, “Live By Night” is Affleck’s prettiest film yet in terms of its colorful cinematography (Provided by multiple Oscar winner Robert Richardson) and detailed period costumes and production design. However, it is the sound in “Live By Night” that is the real highlight. Gunshots pack a powerful punch that land with an impact which helps to keep you engaged anytime there is a large action set piece (And there are quite a few). One set piece, in particular, features a car chase scene that despite the period setting and vehicles feels like it is something ripped right out of “The Fast and the Furious” franchise in terms of excitement and energy.
While “Live By Night” manages to look pretty on the outside, on the inside this is a pretty messy and joyless affair. Hopefully, there is a director’s cut that exists somewhere and manages to put in anywhere from 30-40 minutes of extra material back into the film because you cannot help but feel that “Live By Night” has been trimmed and cut down to death to appeal to as wide of an audience as possible. Affleck’s skill behind the camera and previous films proves that he is capable of something better than this. However, a lifeless screenplay with too much brevity prevents “Live By Night” from leaving much, if any kind of an impact on its viewer.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – Technical elements of the film are all top notch and showcase Affleck’s growth as a director.
THE BAD – The screenplay tries to cram too much in such a short time span, thus cannibalizing the entire film
THE OSCARS – None