Nearly ten years back, Ben Affleck earned rousing praise for his directorial debut, adapting the Dennis Lehane detective novel “Gone Baby Gone” into a gutsy and grim thriller. From there, he dug deeper into Boston-set crime dramas with “The Town,” in which he also starred. Then came “Argo,” the exciting, escape-centered biopic that earned him an Academy Award for Best Picture.
With “Live By Night,” the charismatic actor/writer/director wears all three hats in translating Lehane’s dense gangster saga to the big screen. Early on in development, some speculated Affleck was ambitiously aiming for the Best Actor and Best Director nods his storied career has so far been missing. Yet, as “Live By Night” hits wide release in the thick of award season, it’s stirred no Oscar buzz. That’s, sadly, because it’s more style than substance.
Affleck stars as Boston-born outlaw Joe Coughlin, a World War I vet who turns to crime when he can’t find legit work. Coughlin might not like to think of himself as a gangster, but he’ll rob their gambling dens, seduce their molls, and even kills a cop by the end of act one. Then the film abruptly ditches Boston, pitching Coughlin — and Affleck — from his comfort zone to the bootlegging boondocks of Florida. There, awash in warm hues and swooning shots of Jacqueline West’s sensual costumes, the newly-minted bootlegger pairs his fedoras with white seersucker suits, and forgets his blonde bobbed first love (Sienna Miller in a short but standout turn) for a sultry Cuban rum runner (Zoe Saldana). In building an empire for an Italian mob boss, Coughlin favors intimidation and bribes over violence. However, when the KKK begins shooting up his “colored” joints, bloodshed comes, as does the rise of an unexpected bible thumper (Elle Fanning). But that’s not all! The overlong third act piles on antagonists for a string of shootouts and maximum misery.
“Live By Night”s translation from novel to film is crushingly rough. Lehane’s story is more winding and rich than a standard film runtime allows for, and so the elegance and details are lost. Characters are left little setup time before being chucked into dizzying downward spirals. No sooner are you introduced to Fanning’s doe-eyed aspiring ingénue than she’s reintroduced with dull peepers, nude pics, and heroin tracks Likewise, there are inexplicable setups and payoffs that feel like vestiges from forgotten drafts. For instance, amid some small talk Coughlin references a brother who’d gone off to Hollywood and became a stuntman. An hour and a half later in an arduous epilogue, Coughlin goes to a movie and whoops with delight when he discovers his brother’s name in the credits. It means nothing. Despite a first act subplot involving this criminal’s troubled relationship with his cop father (Brendan Gleeson in a brief but stirring turn), the only mention of the brother is that lone line of dialogue. So why bother with the payoff or setup at all?
Bogged down with confounding details and crudely carved characters, “Live By Night” rumbles by like its shiny convertible cars, with a sleek exterior but a bumpy ride. I imagine that somewhere a 3 or even 3 ½ hour edit exits, fleshing out meatless supporting characters and underfed subplots that could have given “Live By Night” some depth and bite. Perhaps Warner Bros. balked at releasing such a beast of film, so Affleck was forced to make desperate cuts. But this is admittedly groundless, breathless speculation. Regardless of the why, the deeply flawed film rushes through its antihero’s introduction with archival footage and voiceover from a glum Affleck, taking audience empathy for granted. Heavy throughout, Affleck’s voicework–with a Boston accent that comes and goes at random–serves as sloppy stitching, pulling together leaps in time, location. and logic.
Yet, the biggest flaw is Affleck’s own casting. Without showing Coughlin’s path from soldier to criminal, the selling of a “good man gone gangster” story is entirely on the shoulders of Affleck’s performance. But he’s no Bogey or Cagney. No Pacino or De Niro. His face doesn’t read as hardened by war and hard knocks. His eyes aren’t cut deep with pain and rage. His bravado is boyish, not rich with the macho menace of “Scarface” or Scorsese monologues. The overwrought VO can’t make up for Affleck’s lack of old-school grit. And so “Live By Night” feels toothless even as blood sprays and bodies fall. Affleck has moments of gruff greatness, like when he’s coolly threatening a two-timing middleman or condescending to his mafia bosses. Smug and sarcastic suits our dark-edged leading man. Yet he undercuts this needed edge with softening moments and sentimental speeches about the teddy bear at this beast’s core. It all rings false and fumbling, making “Live By Night” a tone-deaf vanity project instead of any kind of enthralling.
“Live By Night” is now playing in New York, and expands nationwide on January 13.