If you know me, I’m all in when it comes to Ben Affleck. The man just loves Boston so much and he feels like every movie he needs to prove it. Even in Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice (2016) (the year is over so I can officially say that was the worst movie title of 2016), Affleck tried to sneak in a Boston-accent for his Bruce Wayne. When Good Bad Taste started, I made my debut reviewing The Accountant (2016) to express my silent love affair with Affleck. After what I thought was his most overrated directorial attempt, Argo (2012), Affleck is back in the director’s chair (and starring, obviously) with a love letter to the Cagney/Bogart era with a prohibition-set, fedora rocking, gun slinging thriller: Live By Night (2016).
Affleck’s fourth go-around as a director is based off the book of the same title by Dennis Lehane. This is the second book by Lehane that Affleck has adapted – the first being Gone Baby Gone (2007). The former tells the story of Joe Coughlin, a Boston-born-gangster during the prohibition era, who Affleck ups the badass factor for right after deciding that he (Affleck) would play him. Like I said, I love Ben; but when every other scene of the twenty-minute prologue is him sleeping with a woman to express his love for her, it comes off like Affleck has an issue with his masculinity. That, and the fact that just about every scene in the first half of this movie ends with Affleck putting a bullet between someone’s eyes just when the tension gets high. Affleck’s Joe Coughlin isn’t really challenged until we’re knee deep into the second half of the movie.
I’ve seen every film Affleck has directed. After about a decade of his material, I’ve come to a conclusion that I probably could have come to five years ago: Ben Affleck is not a good writer. The way this movie is paced makes Affleck come off as a high school essayist who thinks his rough draft is passable. We’ve all been there: We’re so afraid of missing some crucial piece of information in our work that we shoehorn it in there and it ends up doing more harm than good. There are multiple facets of noir, and Affleck decided to try cramming two decades of a genre into one movie. I’m a huge fan of crime Noirs from the 40s and 50s. They take conventional filmmaking techniques and more often than not turn audience expectation on its head with ambivalent, erotic, and sometimes even cruel themes. Noirs thrust Warner Bros’ status as a Hollywood film studio into the stratosphere by casting big name actors in renegade/outcast roles to give viewers their first “badasses” – inspiring everything from Dirty Harry to John Wick (okay, Reed, chill).
Affleck’s storytelling feels far too bloated and rushed, as if he took a crash course on film noir at an accredited university and took little snippets of every piece of history going on during that era instead of focusing on one or two themes. More often than not, Live By Night shows that Affleck could have made ten movies from all of the sources he tries to “pay homage” to, but instead tries to cram it all into two hours.
While his writing needs a lot, LOT of improvement, when it comes to the physical directing Affleck is no amateur. He knows how to build tension in a scene (before his writing kills any sense of it) and, like The Town (2010), he knows how to film a bank robbery with a complimentary getaway chase in the following scene. Affleck may not be a standout actor himself (especially when you compare him, now, to his brother’s performance in Manchester by the Sea (2016)), but he gets some great performances out of Zoe Saldana and Chris Messina. This came to no surprise for me. Affleck always has standout supporting characters in his movies (Jeremy Renner in The Town, Alan Arkin in Argo) and while he may not be able to direct the Boston accent out of himself, he can give audiences great support to fall back on. The only weak link for me in the acting department was Elle Fanning – who plays a wannabe Hollywood star whose divinity is all too forced and she’s shoehorned out of the movie as fast as she is shoehorned in.
Live By Night is entertaining for all the right reasons. It’s gritty and bountiful with action and romance like any noir or crime thriller. It’s clear, however, that Affleck needed a second – probably third – draft of his script to decide: A – Whether this movie was going to be about prohibition or gambling; and B – Just what kind of character Joe Coughlin was going to be. I think the biggest flaw in this movie is Affleck had no idea if Coughlin was going to be a gangster or a do-gooder (is that a word?). One scene he refuses to work for the Italian mob. The next scene he asks if he can work for them to take down another mob. Make up your mind, Ben!
See Live By Night for the action and Ben Affleck’s knack for wearing a fedora slightly to the side of his head. Just keep expectations relatively level and don’t expect another Oscar winner like Argo… that is if you liked Argo in the first place.