Live by Night is Ben Affleck’s prohibition-era follow up to his 2012 critical darling Argo. Argo garnered Affleck many awards, including the Best Picture Oscar, which is why it’s so puzzling that a film so successful at the time should be so hard to remember now. It never truly captured my imagination upon initial viewing, but even so, for the life of me I can’t remember a single thing that happened in that film outside of the trailer soundbites.
Live by Night, it appears, is doomed to the same fate. A mostly forgettable gangster flick that has a few touches of intrigue that is garnered simply by having its characters exist in the film’s exotic setting. Affleck plays Boston hood Joe Coughlin, the first of the film’s numerous problems. Coughlin spends much of the film in a reflective silence but doesn’t have any of the charismatic magnetism that a quiet role demands. He doesn’t have the intensity of There Will Be Blood’s Daniel Plainview, or the menace of No Country for Old Men’s Anton Chigurh.
Rather a plain canvas than a blank one, perhaps intended to be governed by what we as the audience project on to him, but he never earns our desire to see our faces beneath his trilby hat. He becomes the embodiment of the protagonist husk; the void of his personality is intended not to alienate audience members, but it removes any capability he has to entertain. This performance puts Affleck right back to where he can’t ever go again – that place in the early 2000s where he was seen as Hollywood’s dullest and most uninteresting actor.
He begins his life as a small-time crook, robbing gangsters of their illegally gotten gains, but despite his occupation as a career criminal, he insists that he isn’t a gangster and wants no part of the culture. This is the first time you feel frustrated with the character. This is a man who clearly wants to have his cake and devour it in a belly-busting binge. It’s a line he stumbles along for the whole film; trying to be the best criminal he can, while simultaneously trying to keep a sense of gallantry. Yet, he isn’t a Robin Hood type with charitable intentions. His motivations are purely driven by profit.
While exasperating at points, his inner conflict does give the plot its best moments of tension and unease. It leads to some dealings with a police chief whose daughter gets on the wrong end of some Hollywood hoodlums. This thread becomes a vein reddening underneath the skin of the film threatening to burst at any moment.
His exploits in Boston are mercifully short, as while we are there it never becomes more than the standard art deco gangster flick that you probably have on your DVD shelf several times over. It’s only when the action heads to the sunny shores of Tampa, Florida, that it begins to show some fire in its belly. Joe’s fling with a mob boss’s moll means he has to choose sides quickly during a gang war and is sent down to deal with the rum shortage where the New Englanders get their liquor from Cuba. There, Coughlin finds a welcome change of pace to the grey overcast skies and drab concrete blocks of his hometown.
The city is a powder keg of conflicting cultures and races, and it gives the film an edge that it was previously – and sorely – lacking. The colour of the clothes and architecture, the vibrancy of the populous, the stifling heat of the sun, all combine to create a captivating atmosphere and the film actually goes a long way to give you something original, something that it can call its own, not borrowed from a better and more impactful example in the genre.
This is exemplified in the supporting characters. The police chief and his daughter I’ve already mentioned – their story arc takes the story in its most thought-provoking directions, even after you think they’re done – but there are plenty of interesting characters to keep things fresh throughout the two-hour running time. Joe’s love interest in the form of Zoe Saldana provides a moral centre for the drama and the inclusion of the KKK gives some political context that both helps and hampers the story. When the KKK introduce themselves with their calling card of a burning cross, why is the only perspective the camera seems interested in that of the only non-klansman white in the county? There are many times in the film when I get a good look at all of the stories that must be going on around our intrepid hero, where I realise that we must be following the most boring man in Tampa.
Live by Night is a feast with a lot of great sides, but the main dish is bland and unappetising. The protagonist needs a lesson in character and the central plot needs to take some notes from the plots going on around it. It has an interesting flavour, but there isn’t enough of it to satisfy. Hopefully, Mr. Affleck remembers the director of Gone Baby Gone by the time that the next Batman movie comes around because this guy isn’t fixing the problems keeping the DC universe down.
Dir: Ben Affleck
Scr: Ben Affleck, Dennis Lehane
Cast: Ben Affleck, Elle Fanning, Brendan Gleeson, Robert Glenister, Sienna Miller, Zoe Saldana, Chris Cooper
Prd: Ben Affleck, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Davisson Killoran, Jennifer Todd
DOP: Robert Richardson
Music: Harry Gregson-Williams
Country: United States
Runtime: 128 minutes