By Greg Mysogland
Although he has only directed four films, most film experts would agree that Ben Affleck is a very talented director. His first three films, Gone Baby Gone, The Town and Argo all received nearly unanimous praise, with Argo winning an Academy Award for Best Picture. However, even the world’s greatest directors have a film or two that are not masterpieces. Affleck’s latest directorial effort, 1920’s gangster epic Live by Night (based on a Dennis Lehane novel of the same name), proves this theory with a film that, while highly entertaining, does not meet the standard set by Affleck’s past works.
Live by Night follows Joe Coughlin (with Affleck taking the starring role in his own film, as he often does), who, following traumatic experiences as a soldier in the pointlessly horrific World War I, has sworn never to follow orders again, leading him to become a small-time bank robber before becoming a powerful gangster. This fairly original motivation is the first element of Coughlin’s character to frame him as unique among cinematic gangsters.
Unfortunately, the film as a whole is nowhere near this original, often seeming to be more so Affleck’s homage to classic gangster films like The Godfather than a fresh vision (The Town is a much more unique crime thriller). Affleck does seem to be at least somewhat conscious of this however, with certain techniques (such as less extreme close-ups and more limited numbers of cuts) emulating the classic films Affleck seems to be inspired by while not becoming completely foreign to modern audiences.
This unique blend of old and new is one of the film’s stronger elements and is illustrated by various aspects of the film.
In addition to his endearing motivation, Coughlin is probably the most socially progressive criminal in cinematic history, at points defending the value of immigrants to the American economy and raining violent retribution against the KKK. Affleck’s classical inspirations resurface in his wonderfully simple action sequences that differ in style to modern blockbusters. Two of the film’s first-act bank robberies are shot in single continuous takes that contrast the quick cuts found in most action films these days.
Aside from these technical strengths, Live by Night also features a talented supporting cast, with Sienna Miller, Elle Fanning and Chris Messina making particularly strong impressions. Unfortunately, the film’s script lets both cast and crew down, and is the root cause of most of the film’s problems. In addition to directing, starring in and co-producing the film, Affleck wrote Live by Night’s screenplay and it seems as if the quartet of responsibilities may have simply been too much, with the film’s story suffering in place of Affleck’s direction or performance.
Live by Night establishes very interesting characters but does not explore them with great depth. Coughlin’s thoughts and feelings are portrayed by frequent voiceovers, which is problematic being that his actions do not always coincide with what the narration tells us he is feeling. Fanning’s character is the only one who has a refined, focused arc that naturally follows its trajectory, but her part in the story is too small to become the heart the film needs.
Ultimately Live by Night is an enjoyable, if somewhat disappointing film. However, Affleck and company should be praised for making an old-fashioned blockbuster that is not a sequel or remake. Hollywood needs to make more of these kinds of films. Let us just hope its successors are executed better.