Live by Night
Director - Ben Affleck
Cast - Ben Affleck, Zoe Saldana, Sienna Miller, Brendan Gleeson, Chris Messina, Chris Cooper
Rating - 1.5/5
Often, our opinion of a film is defined by its ending. It doesn’t matter what has come before, if the film ends strongly enough, we are more accepting of its flaws, more tolerant of its misses, and more understanding of the several bizarre decisions, that only moments ago, were driving us up the wall.
Unfortunately, there is nothing redeeming about Live by Night’s ending. Nor is there anything worth mentioning about its overlong, dim, quagmire-like middle.
For more than an-hour-and-a-half however, that was the hope. Every time two characters sat down to talk – which is what this movie is basically made up of; two (or more) characters, sitting down for a chat, invariably about topics that have little to do with the events of the film – I found myself hoping, fingers crossed, that Ben Affleck somehow manages to save it in the end.
But nothing can save Live by Night, nothing can erase the memory of scene after scene of exhausting, aimless drudgery. Not a single flourish of Robert Richardson’s camera, not a single moment of levity, not a stray line of unusually pulpy dialogue, and not a gunfight or a car chase. Not even a strong ending. Nothing. Nothing could have saved Live by Night because it is not a movie. It is – put conservatively – at least 4 different movies, ineptly stitched together by one of the finest directors working today.
And the most infuriating thing about all this is that it actually begins quite promisingly. Ben Affleck plays Joe Coughlin, a Boston gangster recently back from a stint in the First World War. Things are going great; he’s making quick cash sticking up banks and looting alcohol, his friends by his side, sleeping by day, living by night. He doesn’t let slight inconveniences get to him. So what if his father happens to be a cop and the love of his life moonlights as the mistress of Boston’s most feared mob boss? There’s nothing in the world that doesn’t quiver when Affleck whips out his pistol.
Then, the movie takes a left turn that not only sends it down the wrong path, but, quite literally, into the wrong town. The second Coughlin’s train rolls into that sticky, sunny Florida platform, Affleck decides that he doesn’t really want to make a ‘30s gangster movie anymore. What he wants to do instead, is make Scarface. So he hunches up his shoulders, develops a weakness for cream suits, and starts strutting about town like he owns the place, putting holes in KKK Grand Wizards and bootlegging the finest rum this side of Cuba.
Honestly, that Live by Night turned out to be this big a mess is quite shocking – perhaps even more so than that time when Affleck put on Batman’s cape and cowl. As a filmmaker, before this, he hadn’t put a foot wrong. Each of his 3 previous movies were excellent, and 2 of them – Gone Baby Gone and The Town – were set in Boston, like this one. It’s like when Martin Scorsese paid homage to the city of his dreams when he made Gangs of New York – only much, much worse.
In Live by Night, it doesn’t matter if you are a central character or an extra, sooner or later (like the love of Coughlin’s life), the movie will forget you – if you haven’t already wandered off mid-scene yourself that is.
In Live by Night, every character is treated with the same, indifferent shrug that is usually reserved for empty whiskey glasses or long coats hanging limp on a rack - even Joe Coughlin, whom Affleck manages to write into basically every scene.
In Live by Night, a scene might begin with a mob shakedown, but chances are, it will probably end with Evangelicals preaching the Lord’s word.
In Live by Night, Ben Affleck finds every imaginable way to shoot his own film in the foot – and then light a match and set fire to the gaping wound, as it hobbles away into oblivion.