Things started to look promising for Ben Affleck. The actor/writer-turned-director flipped his misfortunes around as few can in the moviemaking business, going from one of the media’s easiest targets to one of our most lauded cinematic heavyweights — all in a matter of a few years. Much like Kevin Costner before him, Affleck honed his craft, developed his strengths, diverted his weaknesses and drove himself to the projects that spoke to him —and it worked. In fact, it worked kinda spectacularly. But none of us are infallible.
Affleck’s good fortunes were hard-earned and hard-wrought, but not boundless. One doesn’t climb a mountain without tripping for a few steps, and Affleck tumbles with Live By Night. He tumbles pretty hard, in fact. Clumsy, lumbering, overwhelmed, over-indulgent and just plain dull, Affleck’s fourth directorial effort is the exactly the kind of bloated, bothersome clusterfuck that comes to those who fly a little too close to the sun when the light shines oh-so-brightly on your tidings. One does not rise without falling. After years of rising back to the top, Affleck, once again, finds himself stumbling closer to the ground.
Based on the crime novel of the same name by Dennis Lehane, whom Affleck adapted prior with his immersive, intensive sophomore feature, 2010’s The Town, Live By Night is pulpy, expansive and varied in its ambitions in ways the actor/writer/director/producer’s past three films were noticeably more gritty, grounded and enclosed in their scope. A ’20s/’30s-based gangster noir fable laced with flair and lust, it follows noble-minded Joe Coughlin (Affleck), the son of a Boston police captain (Brendan Gleeson), WWI veteran and all-around good-hearted Irishman, in his descent into corruption, deception and ill morals. It’s a familiar, well-traveled narrative, and it never feels like anything else under Affleck’s eye.
Though the A-list filmmaker considered this one a long-gesturing passion project, Live By Night is a surprisingly sluggish, unenthused effort, with little-to-no signs of heart, passion or interest found throughout its monotonous, underwhelmed execution. Where Affleck’s previous films snapped and sizzled, this newest project flatlines and fizzles. In all honesty, it’s hard to see what exactly made him work so hard to bring it to life — well, other than the chance to return to Boston, wave around a quick-triggered gun in his white-collared suit and pretend to sleep with beautiful women, notably Sienna Miller and Zoe Saldana. The mood is muted, muddled and muffled, and it seems all-too-content to go through the tired tropes performed a thousand times prior, and a whole lot better elsewhere. It’s dreary and downplayed without honest conviction or inspiration, and it lacks emotional sincerity.
As a filmmaker with considerable clout and industry respect, Affleck should expand his efforts, and he does. Live By Night is a bigger, broader film than anything he directed prior, and it’s not necessarily incompetent in its execution. The violence hits and the morality can sometimes weigh heavily in a few key segments. There is also no shortage of pretty looking shots, courtesy of cinematographer Robert Richardson (The Hateful Eight), and the period production design can often dazzle. Additionally, supporting turns by Gleeson, Chris Cooper, Matthew Maher and, most especially, Chris Messina are quick to astound in their limited screentime. The latter, in particular, with his added weight and jokey persona, proves himself in ways the undervalued actor hasn’t gotten to prior. There are certainly good elements, and it isn’t hard to find things to celebrate. But nothing feels invested.
Affleck isn’t necessarily a performer with great versatility, but he knows how to impress in the right role. Joe Coughlin is not the right role. The irony that he literally wrote it for himself is not easily lost. Of late, the Gone Girl, The Company Men and, yes, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice actor has nestled into roles that fit into reserved, understated acting style well. But Coughlin’s journey, under Affleck’s vision and care, feels passive and disinterested. His transformation comes unearned, and you never get a full glimpse into his troubled, disquiet mental psyche. Coughlin can shoot someone like it’s nobody’s business, no doubt. Yet, we, the audience, never get a well-rounded glimpse into this deep-rooted melancholy unless it’s explicitly stated via monotone voice-over narration or clunky dialogue. Which is what leads to arguably the film’s biggest, most apparent shortcoming.
Live By Night most definitely feels like an adaptation. Where The Town flowed with froth intensity and heart-pounding excitement, found through tight action and focused direction, Affleck’s latest Lehane interpretation never finds its own rhythm and groove. It’s slower and more methodical than some of the writer/director’s other works, but without any real understanding or investment in these characters, that matters little and means next-to-nothing. It’s a movie that often tells instead of shows, and that makes it lack urgency when it needs to explain, in explicit detail, what is happening, why it’s happening and so forth. Any directness or assertiveness in Affleck’s past productions is deathly lost here. If his last three works raised a quick-beating pulse, this new one leaves you comatose throughout.
Affleck is a man with his fair share of highs-and-lows. His future will hold more highs, quite certainly, but Live By Night serves as his first clear behind-the-camera miss. Inactive, stagnant and without the spice or surprise that made the actor/director’s past projects often excel, it’s an absolute disappointment for Affleck in a year defined by them. He’ll likely rebound in no time. He isn’t one to settle, after all. But the climb won’t come as easy.