January 16, 2017
Like a rollercoaster ride, Ben Affleck’s career has had its share of ups and downs. After appearing in a few charming indies like Dazed and Confused and Mallrats, he and screenwriting partner Matt Damon won an Oscar for Good Will Hunting and became overnight stars. Soon he was headlining Michael Bay blockbusters like Armageddon and Pearl Harbor (one of the biggest disappointments of all time). Then came the fall. Between all the tabloid romances and the horrible choices like Daredevil and Gigli, the public was suffering from Affleck overload. This was never more apparent than in 2006’s Smokin’ Aces during which theater audiences roared with applause when Affleck’s character was killed early in the film. That’s rock bottom.
For the next three years, Ben Affleck would never be seen on screen again. During this hiatus came his directorial debut, the outstanding Gone Baby Gone, in which he wisely opted to have his brother Casey play the lead while also demonstrating solid skills behind the camera. Affleck finally resurfaced in an understated supporting performance opposite Russell Crowe in the riveting political thriller State of Play. A year after that, he directed and starred in the critically acclaimed The Town and followed that up with the Oscar-winning Argo. This return to A-list status garnered Affleck the coveted lead role in David Fincher’s Gone Girl and, to much fan scrutiny, he received the honor of being tapped as Warner Bros. new Batman. After another rapid ascent, Ben Affleck’s career seems to once again be teetering on the brink of overexposure and ultimately another plunge.
His latest directorial effort, Live By Night, is the saga of Joe Coughlin, the Irish son of a police captain, coming up in the mean streets of Prohibition-era Boston. Having chosen the opposite side of the law than dear old dad, the film follows Joe’s rise in the Boston gangster ranks and later his exploits in rum distribution and casino legalization in Tampa. If it all sounds very Martin Scorcese-ish, that’s because it is, though a better description may be Scorcese-Lite. It’s got all the familiar symptoms of a Scorcese film like incredible cinematography, violence, corruption, cruelty, great lines like “you can’t truly live unless there’s something for which we would die,” but it’s lacking that intangible emotional depth that’s felt in Scorcese’s works.
Before we get to what Live By Night is, there’s the other thing that Live By Night isn’t, and that’s a fantastic Dennis Lehane adaptation. Lehane, who not only wrote the aforementioned Gone Baby Gone, is also responsible for cinematic greats like Shutter Island, Mystic River, and The Drop, and was on the writing staff for HBO’s The Wire and Boardwalk Empire, so this guy knows how to write a crime drama. The problem with Live By Night the novel is the main thing that also hinders the movie, and that’s the fact that it is basically a bunch of short stories that are strung together to form a sort of historical narrative. Whether it’s an episode involving immigration and the KKK or an arc about the religious opposition to alcohol, each subplot simply tells a surface tale, usually punctuated by a violent act, and then linked via montage narrated by Joe to the next chronicle.
Still, while none of the individual beats are especially moving, the look of the film is something to behold. Like all of the films Ben Affleck has directed, the picturesque composition, subtle movements, and brilliant lighting are perfectly accented with crackling and brutal scenes of artistic violence like the fantastically fun climatic shoot-out. With this fourth effort, he has absolutely solidified himself as one of the finest directors in American cinema.
As for the other side of the camera, Affleck is decent enough in a leading role that is about as vanilla as the plethora of white, off-white, cream, or ivory suits and matching fedoras he wears. Zoe Saldana, Sienna Miller, and Elle Fanning all give fine performances as the three ladies with whom Joe has three intimate but extremely varied encounters. The most memorable turn by far, however, is that of Chris Messina. As Dion Bartolo, Joe’s right-hand man, Messina packs on about 20 pounds and delivers all of the movie’s funniest and best lines with some serious weight. It won’t be at all surprising if he’s pulling some lead roles in the near future after this one.
In the end, like most Dennis Lehane adaptations, Live By Night is engrossing but ultimately depressing. Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that Lehane’s worst novel to date became Ben Affleck’s worst directorial effort to date. That’s not to say that either were bad, just that we’ve been spoiled by their superior previous works. To summarize, let’s hit that roller coaster analogy again. Live By Night builds up each chapter, slowly and steadily taking you to a peak, offering a beautiful view along the way, only to give you a very brief and exhilarating drop, after which you realize all too soon that you’re already on a long journey back upward. It’s still a ride. But it’s an uneven ride that’s aesthetically pleasing, only occasionally interesting, and underwhelmingly forgettable.
Star Rating: 3 out of 5 stars