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Sometimes things get a little more enlightened on a second viewing.
Everything about Live By Night reads on paper like it should have been a movie in awards contention but paper rarely translates to the screen. While admittedly not without some merit, this is easily Ben Affleck’s weakest effort when it comes to writing and directing as can’t elevate the narrative out of a genre that has told similar stories in a much stronger fashion.
It’s the roaring 20’s and if you have the mettle; business is booming as Prohibition hasn’t stopped the flow of booze in gangster run speakeasies all across the country. The opportunities for money and power are there, you simply have to have the nerve and the ambition to take them and Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck) is that guy. The son of a Boston Police superintendant who has traded in his strict and moral upbringing for the life of an outlaw, however even in the den of thieves that he calls home there are rules and he’s broken some of the big ones. You don’t take your bosses and money…and you certainly don’t take his girl. After tragedy strikes Joe is set down the path of revenge, betrayal, ambition and romance into the steamy underbelly of Tampa’s rum-running underworld as he looks to not only get ahead but make himself whole at the same time.
You can’t help but actually feel a little sorry Ben on this one. Yeah he’s been through a lot the past little while…and it shows as Live By Night is just a watered down pastiche of a film that suffers under the weight of those in the genre that came before it and it can’t quite hit the bar of excellence that I suspect he was hoping it would, but that being said it may still find a second life on DVD/BD/VOD.
While there is no denying Affleck’s obvious talent as a director, this film lacks a certain amount of emotional vibrancy. The narrative flows well and the scale of the scope of the movie are all appropriate as the cinematography of Robert Richardson painted a lush and pulpy affair, but we just never felt invested in anything that went on with any of the characters. Adapted from the novel by Dennis Lahane, this was Affleck’s very first solo outing as a writer and I am sad to say that it shows. The character development is weak and the dialogue almost feels like an affectation at times. Everyone is trying their hardest, but there is just no emotional meat on any of the pages that Affleck provided. The character development is questionable as some of the motivations of the characters very much feel like a moving target. The material is all there but it lacks coherency. Rather than focus on the words on the page, Affleck tries to evoke memories of other gangster period pictures in some of his imagery and in those few moments when his character is trying to make an emotionally relevant point or statement it all feels forced. When the best thing you can do in your film is remind the audience that someone did it better, then you’ve got a long road to climb no matter how glossy the film looks.
Directing himself this time he was just a little too rigid and it felt like his Joe Coughlin was just a moralized gangster version of how he sees himself. Meanwhile Chris Messina is fine as his right hand man and long time friend but every other character barely registered in the entire film. Zoe Saldana was supposed to be his emotional salvation to get out of a life of crime, but I often forgot that she was there while Chris Cooper was almost invisible as the devout local sheriff, Brendan Gleeson only had three scenes in the entire movie and the less said about Sienna Miller’s horrible Irish accent the better. Only Elle Fanning as the Bible thumping victim of her own world naiveté and Matthew Maher as a vicious KKK leader got any moments to standout out in what has to be one of the most vanilla and bland feeling gangster pictures in recent memory.
All great artists are bound to have their missteps, it’s fairly unavoidable. For Ben Affleck, Live By Night is exactly that as it never gets going in any of the ways that it is hoping to but that being said even as a misstep there is still a pretty good movie in here somewhere. And even though it does play softer on the small screen, let’s hope it is a learning experience to know when to share the creative load, because not everyone is suited to do it all by themselves.
The picture and sound quality on the BD is top notch and along with a feature length director’s commentary and deleted scenes, there are four behind the scenes featurettes looking into the making of the film.