One of the great Hollywood turnarounds of the last decade-and-change has been Ben Affleck's transformation from frequent punchline in the wake of such seismic duds as Gigli and Jersey Girl into one of the most gifted triple-threats the industry has to offer, with his considerable skills as writer/director/star readily visible in films such as The Town and 2012 Best Picture winner Argo. As such, it was with a certain amount of anticipation that I greeted Affleck's latest, the period crime drama Live by Night, and while it's his least satisfying directorial effort to date, it still bears enough hallmarks of a talented filmmaker not to be dismissed entirely.
Based on the 2012 Dennis Lehane crime novel of the same name, Live by Night is definitely Affleck's most ambitious turn behind the camera in terms of the sheer scope it attempts to encompass, weaving an epic, decade-spanning crime tale in the Godfather mould. But though its ambitions are clear, it feels less like a fully-realized story than a patchwork of interesting ideas that are rarely developed to satisfaction. The film tracks Joe Coughlin (Affleck), a small-time Boston hood in the 1920s who eventually forms a massive illegal rum-running empire out of Florida, all the while making plans for revenge against the Boston crime lord who betrayed him and sent him to prison (Robert Glenister).
Boasting opulent production design by Jess Gonchor and luxurious cinematography from Robert Richardson, not to mention a top-drawer supporting cast including Zoe Saldana, Chris Messina, Sienna Miller, Chris Cooper, and Elle Fanning, Live by Night tries to make a strong case for itself as a triumphant restoration of the crime epics of old. And while it certainly has enough of those trappings, it's also repeatedly hamstrung by its episodic nature, jerking from inciting incident to inciting incident without a clear through-line and leaving the whole thing undernourished. As a result, there's a start-stop jitteriness to the narrative that prevents it from building up any steam.
All the actors turn in exactly the kind of work you'd expect from this cast, so the problem certainly isn't there. But even still, the tale of crime and revenge and racism and brutality never really hits home the way you want. Moments that should be emotional don't quite land, and despite him being our ostensible protagonist, Joe feels like he's living perpetually at arm's length, both from the other characters and those of us in the audience. In fact, he's not so much a character as a template of anachronistic progressivism (he's dating a black girl, he's against the KKK) that allows the audience to forgive his other failings. Sure, he's a bad guy, but, y'know, he's better than the other bad guys.
Now, all by itself this wouldn't be that much of a problem, mainly because Affleck -- who's gotten more interesting and watchable as an actor the older he's gotten (as evidenced here and in last year's otherwise forgettable The Accountant) -- is able to command our interest and attention. Indeed, his ease as both director and performer are on full display here. However, although Live by Night has the standard two-hour runtime, it somehow manages to feel both too languid and too rushed, which goes to a flaw in the story structure that Affleck (who also scripted) never quite licked. It's a disappointment, but not one that makes me anticipate his future output any less. C
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