Remember Live By Night?
Released in December of 2016, Live By Night was one of those highly anticipated films that ended up bombing at the box office and leaving critics cold. The anticipation was due to the fact that Live By Night was the first film that Ben Affleck had directed since Argo won best picture. It was seen as Affleck’s next prestige picture, the one that would remind everyone that he was more than just the latest actor to be cast as Batman. Live By Night was expected to be a huge Oscar contender. As for why it bombed at the box office, that may have had something to do with the fact that Live By Night is not a very good film.
It’s a gangster film, one that takes place during prohibition. Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck) is the most boring gangster in Boston. Or, at least, he is until he falls for the wrong woman and he ends up having to flee down to Tampa. Once down there, Joe sets himself up as the most boring gangster in Florida. There’s all sorts of themes running through Live By Night — racial themes, economic themes, even some heavy-handed religious themes — but ultimately, the main impression that one gets from the film’s story is that Joe Coughlin was a very boring gangster.
Anyway, Joe gets involved in all sorts of corruption and violence. He brings down his friend, Dion (Chris Messina), to help him out. Whereas Joe is rational and dull, Dion is violent and dull. You spend the entire movie waiting for the moment when Dion will turn on Joe but it never happens. I guess that’s a good thing since Joe and Dion are busy battling the Klan. Joe may be a 1920s gangster but he’s got the political and cultural outlook of a 21st century movie star.
Joe knows that prohibition is going to end someday, so he hopes to make money through opening up a casino. Standing in the way of the casino is a prostitute-turned-evangelist named Loretta (Elle Fanning). Loretta is the daughter of the local police chief (Chris Cooper), with whom Joe has an uneasy friendship. You keep expecting this plot to go somewhere but it really doesn’t. Loretta’s just kinda there. That said, we do get a hilarious shot of a tearful Chris Cooper repeating the word repent over and over again so there is that.
Zoe Saldana is also just kind of there, playing Joe’s Cuban wife. Again, you expect a lot to happen with Saldana’s character but, for the most part, she’s mostly just a plot device who exists solely so that Joe can have some sort of motivation beyond simply wanting to get rich.
It’s a big, sprawling film that never quite feels like an epic. A huge part of the problem is that Ben Affleck the director is let down by Ben Affleck the actor. Regardless of what’s happening in the scene, Affleck always has the same grim look on his face. At times, it seems as if he’s literally been chiseled out of a marble and you find yourself wondering if he’s actually capable of any facial expression beyond glum annoyance. A gangster film like this need a bigger-than-life protagonist but, as played by Affleck, Joe always seems to be in danger of vanishing into the scenery.
I think part of the problem is that Affleck’s previous films all dealt with places and subjects that Affleck felt comfortable with, perhaps because he could relate their stories to his own personal experiences. Gone, Baby, Gone and The Town both took place exclusively in Boston. Argo dealt with the film industry. Live By Night is a period piece set in the South and Affleck is obviously lost from the minute Joe arrives in Florida.
Live By Night, I think, could have been a good movie if it had been directed by someone like Paul Thomas Anderson and maybe if an actor like Colin Farrell played the role of Joe. But, as it is, it’s just a rather stolid and uninspiring gangster film.