I’m sure everyone thought Live By Night was going to be a big deal— Ben Affleck directing his first film since Argo won Best Picture, and this time a crime story based on a novel by the same guy who wrote Mystic River. It feels like a sure thing; America loves prestige mafia stories— just ask Scorsese, Coppola, or Chase. Unfortunately, Live by Night isn’t quite like any of those, or rather, it’s too much like those and other movies that came before that. It never quite feels like an original story, and it collapses under the pressure to be something amazing so it never settles for being just good. It could have been a great good movie.
There’s so much going on in Live By Night, it’s an endless cavalcade of story and plot points, but I’m not sure it ever gets around to figuring out what it’s about. The strongest attempt it makes is that it’s about how entrenched power strives to keep down the less fortunate but it doesn’t try very hard to get that across— just a couple scenes and then in the climax it all seems to be a metaphor. The events aren’t compelling enough or, frankly, unique enough to make an impact on their own. Everything feels lifted from something else: a better gangster movie, a better gangster TV show, even an above average video game about being a criminal from 10 years ago. It’s a tired shtick, and while it can be done well it needs to have some kind of hook, a new take, or a transcendent performance, or something… and Live By Night just doesn’t have anything to make it special.
It might help if there were more characters in the film that mattered. Joe Coughlin (Affleck) matters, of course, the whole movie flows through him in his quest to, I don’t know, generally make Tampa Bay a worse place through criminal activity. Irving Figgis (Chris Cooper) matters too, he’s the police chief that makes deals with criminals and thinks himself above everything. We get to see both of those characters struggle and change, but everyone else in the film just sort of exists to move one or both of these characters through to their next thing. Elle Fanning is a delight in this movie, she plays a complicated character with a tour de force personal arc played to perfection, but her character doesn’t matter, she’s no more important than the casino Coughlin is trying to build, just another obstacle to overcome. It goes on like that— there are fine actors in this movie like Zoe Saldana and Chris Messina but they’re ultimately reduced to occasional maguffins doing accents.
Ben Affleck has acting, writing, directing and producing credits on Live By Night, so while film may be the ultimate collaborative medium it’s hard not to feel like this is on him. Ben Affleck the actor does a fine job (although accents continue to mostly elude him) but he’s let down by Ben Affleck the writer. The movie is based on a novel and I suppose it’s only sporting to give the benefit of the doubt that the source material was bad, but doesn’t that responsibility fall at least partially on Ben Affleck, producer? Director Ben Affleck must be credited for the cast delivering some standout performances, but with the exception of an early car chase there are no particularly compelling visual sequences, and it lacks the tension of The Town or Argo.
Maybe we need some sort of commission to review any new attempts to make gangster films—to monitor them to ensure that they add something worthwhile to the genre which has been mined so aggressively over the years. Live By Night had some nice moments, but if you put the DVD on my shelf next to The Godfather and Goodfellas it would never get picked up. (I don’t happen to own Goodfellas but you’ll have to take me at my word on this one.) Live By Night is an above average movie that demands to be compared to excellent movies, and it suffers for it.