Between Live By Night and Patriots Day, Bahston (sic) isn’t having a very good year in the cinema. A passion project of writer/director/actor Ben Affleck, coming on the heels of his Oscar winning Argo, Live By Night is an ambitious adaptation of a Dennis Lehane novel, set in the early twentieth century, about a small-time crook employed by the Italian mob, to oversee a bootlegging operation during Prohibition in Ybor City, Florida, but it fails miserably at connecting on a human level, with undeveloped characters and a sprawling story that continues to open up new threads that it cannot bring together. While not as egregious as Peter Berg’s take on the Boston Marathon bombing, mostly due to the fact that Affleck is at least dealing with proven source material in a story form, Live By Night is a complete failure on every other level, that works only as a cautionary tale to Hollywood studios and producers to be careful which actors are given carte blanche on their passion projects. Because if this film is any indication, Argo was a total fluke.
The gangster genre is a tough nut to crack. With so many perfect examples of the genre, from Scorsese to Coppola, De Palma and Ridley Scott and Michael Mann, everyone seems to have their favorite by which any new effort is compared. With a good story, attention to characters, and a clean, clear through line even one-off filmmakers like the Coen brothers can make a masterful entry in the genre, as they did with Miller’s Crossing. Roll over in any of these areas and it all comes down like a house of cards. It’s not enough to simply have grown up on gangster films, unless you want to become the Rob Zombie of the genre, believing that fandom equals talent. And as much as Ben Affleck seems to love writing characters who talk with a thick Beantown accent, he lacks the muscle to turn them into real people. A far better director than writer, despite his Oscar win for Good Will Hunting a million years ago, he should have assigned scribe duties to a proven talent for hire in Hollywood, because what he allows up on screen pales in comparison to even the worst of those genre standard bearers.
Trouble starts right away, as Affleck briefly introduces his character Joe Coughlin in three ways, all of which are glossed over: as a disillusioned veteran of World War I, a small-time criminal in love with a woman linked to the Irish mob, and as trapped under the thumb of his police captain father (Brendan Gleeson). In almost as much time, his girlfriend is killed, he is left for dead, and his father passes away, leaving him no option other than to join up with the rival Italian mob as a means of enacting vengeance, and through it all we learn Affleck is not interested in establishing a dynamic character, but rather hoping that his various pious traits will paint him as the underdog to the audience. And getting rid of his father so quickly, especially after so much dialogue only suggests the director was trying to get his money’s worth, padding his screenplay with as many familiar faces as possible to boost the film’s pedigree (as with Chris Cooper and Elle Fanning), because he doesn’t ultimately serve a bit of purpose.
Not long after he arrives in Ybor City, with his trusty childhood friend Dion, a thoroughly wasted Chris Messina, Affleck continues to define Coughlin by things he isn’t, when the Ku Klux Klan sets fire to his clubs because of his newfound Cuban business partner, and relationship with his sister Graciela (Zoe Saldana), who he has fallen in love with. It’s here where Live By Night completely devolves into an offensive and tired display of race-baiting, where instead of bothering to develop his villains Affleck just has them come out and throw the word “nigger” around, because it’s easy, and because a stand-up guy like Joe Coughlin would certainly not tolerate it, at which point his character suddenly moves from local gangster, to defender of minorities, women, and free speech everywhere. All that’s left is for him to rip off his shirt and expose the giant “S,” err I mean Bat Symbol, because from this point on Live By Night is no longer telling a story, it’s just moving cardboard pieces labelled “good guy” and “bad guy” around the playing field.
It should also be mentioned that Live By Night is deeply misogynistic in its depiction of women, who exist in this film to either be beaten, murdered, or become prostitutes and drug addicts. Elle Fanning is present for about ten minutes, as the daughter of the Ybor City sheriff (Cooper), and it proves just long enough to be one of the worst written characters ever. It’s true gangster films have notoriously been a cinematic boys club, but if you’re not going to bother drawing your characters beyond mere plot points, it’s best not to write them at all. If Live By Night had just been poorly written and directed, a shell of a film in comparison to the greats it emulates, it could die quietly on the vine and disappear into the wasteland of Hollywood vanity projects. But when something is this aggressively manipulative and awful, more attention should be paid, and no doubt Warner Bros. is reeling from the gigantic financial loss it will undoubtedly cause. Live By Night is an epic failure, and one that I trust will haunt Affleck through many projects to come.
The Verdict: Pan