Live by Night
Directed by: Ben Affleck.
Written by: Ben Affleck based on the novel by Dennis Lehane.
Starring: Ben Affleck (Joe Coughlin), Elle Fanning (Loretta Figgis), Brendan Gleeson (Thomas Coughlin), Chris Messina (Dion Bartolo), Sienna Miller (Emma Gould), Zoe Saldana (Graciella Corrales), Chris Cooper (Irving Figgis), Robert Glenister (Albert White), Titus Welliver (Tim Hickey), Remo Girone (Maso Pescatore), Max Casella (Digger Pescatore).
The best comparison to Ben Affleck as actor/director right now is probably Kevin Costner in the 1990s. Costner was a huge star at the time – who became an Oscar winning director for Dances with Wolves – but couldn’t really hit those heights again. As an actor, Costner was – even at the height of his fame – more suited to being the bland central character – the guy who keeps the film on an even keel, as so that everyone around him can go a little crazier – think The Untouchables or JFK. The good news for Ben Affleck is that Live by Night – his fourth film as a director (one more than Costner ever made) is nowhere near the disaster that Waterworld (which Costner is not credited as a director on – although, he did some of it on the film) or The Postman (which he did direct) was – it’s just not a very good film, which is disappointing coming from Affleck, who chose this to be his follow-up to the Oscar winning Argo. The biggest problem with the film – and there are many, but the one that sinks it – is that Affleck the actor just isn’t all that interesting in the central role. As an actor, Affleck, like Costner, is best when he’s kind of bland – and holding the center of the film, like he did in Argo. It’s no coincidence that Affleck’s best performance is in David Fincher’s Gone Girl, where he is essentially playing a bland yet charming idiot who has no idea what the hell is going on – that role played right into Affleck’s strengths as an actor. In Live by Night, he’s already handicapped by the fact that he’s too old for the role (in the Dennis Lehane novel the film is based on, the character in his early 20s) – but the film tries to explain that away. The bigger problem is that he is playing a brooding character – a guy who keeps things bottled up inside him. Some actors, like ironically Casey Affleck, do a brilliant job of suggesting a whole world going on beneath a calm surface. Ben Affleck isn’t one of those – when he’s brooding, he’s just dull. It sinks the movie, which has some good period detail and action set pieces.
The film takes place in the 1920s and 1930s – and Affleck is Joe Coughlin, son of the powerful member of the Boston Police Department (Brendan Gleason – good in an all too brief role) – who nonetheless, becomes an “outlaw” because he has an aversion to authority. He falls in love with Emma Gould (Sienna Miller, going over the top with the Irish accent, but at least having fun) – even though she is the girlfriend of a powerful gangster, Albert White (Robert Glenister – who would twirl a mustache if he had one). Things, of course, go horribly awry – Joe ends up in jail, with some powerful enemies, and Emma is killed in a car accident. When he gets out, he heads down to Florida – where he ends up the most powerful gangster in town – falling in love again, this time with Graciela (Zoe Saldana) – and running afoul of more powerful people – some the same ones from Boston who already hate him.
As a director, Affleck is (like Costner) a classicist – doing a style that we don’t see enough in movies today that harkens back to the studio era. Affleck clearly has affection for all those gangster movies of the 1930s – or set there – and his film is full of visual references to them. The cinematography, costume design and production design clearly bring to mind films like The Godfather (or want to) – and for the most part, the technical aspects of the film is impressive. Unfortunately, in this case, the similarities to the great films of the bygone era is only skin deep – Affleck nails the look, but he doesn’t nail the feeling. The film plods along in its first act, hitting one expected note after another. When something comes along that feels genuinely different and exciting – Elle Fanning as the daughter of a police captain, returned to Tampa from a life of debauchery in L.A., to become a born again leader, and her father (Chris Cooper), falling into religious madness – its dispensed of far too quickly, so we can get back to the plodding main plot of Affleck butting heads with other gangsters, and brooding about it. Fanning and Cooper are great in the movie – the only two performances that truly are – but they come and go too quickly. Many of the other actors, no matter how talented, are given little to nothing to do – no one more so than Zoe Saldana, who looks great in her period costumes – and that’s about all you can say about the role.
There are two good action sequences – an early car chase and an climatic gun battle – that Affleck handles well, perhaps because they’re among the only times Affleck not very good dialogue isn’t being uttered.
I don’t believe that Affleck’s directing career will go the same way Costner’s did – that was pretty much over after The Postman, although he brought it together one last time for 2003’s Open Range (probably my favorite of his directing efforts). Affleck has shown a lot of talent in the directors chair –even if I don’t think he’s topped his debut film Gone Baby Gone yet (The Town and Argo are both very good though). He may even make a good Batman – if the movies he’s in get any better. Still, I cannot help but wonder if Affleck would be better served just directing from now on – and not pulling double duty. A different actor at the center of Live By Night may not have made this a great movie – it would still be overlong, with too many characters who aren’t given anything much to do – but it may have helped make it a good movie. In short, I think Affleck the director needs someone different than Affleck the actor at the center of his films, even if he’s going to continue to move forward – and he’s clearly more talented behind the camera than in front of it.