I first became a fan of Ben Affleck from his work in Kevin Smith’s early nineties films, and in particular his so-funny, good-natured participation in the DVD commentary tracks for Mallrats and Chasing Amy (which are, seriously, among the greatest commentary tracks ever recorded). Mr. Affleck seemed like such a good guy in those commentary tracks that I stuck with him when his career went south, and I was happy when he was able to relaunch himself as a director. As I have written about multiple times, Gone Baby Gone, which was Mr. Affleck’s directorial debut (and he also co-wrote the film!), is one of my all-time favorite movies. It was a triumph, a dramatic assertion of Mr. Affleck’s talent as a writer and director. (Remember also that Mr. Affleck had previously won an Oscar, with Matt Damon, for writing Good Will Hunting.) I didn’t love The Town, but Argo was terrific. And so I was hugely excited for Mr. Affleck’s fourth film as a director: Live by Night. I loved the idea of Mr. Affleck once again adapting a Dennis Lehane novel (as he had done with such success with Gone Baby Gone), and the merging of Mr. Affleck’s fondness for Boston-based crime stories with a big-budget period-piece setting seemed like a terrific match.
And so I was bummed that Live by Night left me somewhat cold. The film looks gorgeous, and has a terrific cast. There are lots of individual moments and sequences that are terrific. But it doesn’t hang together as well as it should. There is too much plot, too many characters, and not enough actual character development.
Mr. Affleck stars as Joe Coughlin. Though his father (played by Brendan Gleeson) is a police captain, Joe himself comes back from WWI to become a bank-robber. He falls in love with a beautiful woman, Emma (Sienna Miller), who is the mistress of the head of Boston’s Irish mob. That all comes crashing down on Joe’s head rather spectacularly. After several years in prison, Joe goes to work for a rival Italian mobster and moves down to Florida, where he quickly becomes the head of the local bootlegging business. Joe’s big plans for the end of prohibition soon put him in conflict with his new boss.
I like Mr. Affleck as an actor, but his Joe disappointingly remains a cypher throughout the film. (This feels more like a script problem than a performance issue.) I don’t feel I ever got to know or understand this character. The film hints that his experiences in WWI brought him back to Boston a changed man, but the film never really allows us to understand what’s going on inside Joe’s head. Having seen horrors in war, we might imagine that this would haunt Joe, but while the film suggests that he is not quick to act violently, we never really see Joe struggle with the violence inherent in the lifestyle he has chosen. (Chosen is the right word. This might have been a story about a good man trapped in bad circumstances, but we never see Joe seem all that unhappy with the life he is leading, except for the moment when he is in prison when his father dies.) The film teases us with the idea that this story is asking the question of whether a “good” man could succeed at crime, but it doesn’t dig nearly deep enough into that potentially interesting idea. Is Joe a good man? I really have no idea, because the film doesn’t really allow us to see what he is thinking or feeling. He seems less bad than many of the other criminals around him, but that’s not saying much.
I think the film wants us to think Joe is a good man. The film is certainly designed to get us to root for him. But I was unsettled by the ways in which the film seems to give Joe a pass on the many bad things we see him do as the story progresses. To make a probably-unfair comparison to one of the greatest crime films ever made, The Godfather, in that film the audience might like and root for Michael Corleone, but the final scene makes clear that Michael has become a terrible man, and the film does not forgive him for that. But Live by Night lacks this story-telling clarity, and seems to let Joe off the hook and set him up as the hero. The film takes pains, in its second half, to show us that Joe, in comparison to almost everyone around him, isn’t racist (he marries a black woman and goes to war against the KKK), and that he puts a lot of his money into building shelters for poor women and children. But does that excuse the crime and death that Joe has been involved with?
Joe is also presented as irresistible to women and much smarter than those around him. He seems to understand instantly how to take control of the booze production in Florida, and he seems to be the only one with the foresight to start planning ahead for the end of prohibition, plans which are ruined because of the stupidity of his criminal bosses. I’m all for a smart lead character, but all of these elements combine to present Joe as an almost perfect hero character (sort of a prohibition-era, criminal James Bond), a presentation which seems at odds with the story being told and one that is hard to connect with or empathize with as an audience-member.
Mr. Affleck has cast two wonderful actresses as the film’s two romantic leads, Sienna Miller as Emma and Zoe Saldana as Graciela, the sister of a Cuban businessman/criminal with whom Joe goes into business soon after moving down to Florida. But both actresses are let down by the film, which doesn’t allow either woman to have much of a character of her own, or importance to the film, outside of their individual relationships with Joe. It’s a shame, because both women are terrific actresses in addition to being very beautiful. (Wow, that dress that Ms. Saldana wears in that dancing scene when sparks fly with Joe!!)
Brendan Gleeson is spectacular as always, a highlight of the film in his role as Joe’s father. I adore all of Mr. Gleeson’s scenes. I wish he had been in more of the film, and I wish the troubled relationship between him and his son Joe had been a more central element of the film’s narrative.
Chris Cooper is also great as Chief Figgis, the straight-laced sheriff with whom Joe has to deal in Florida. I love Chris Cooper (he also popped up in a small role in The Town), and this is a meaty role for him to sink his teeth into. The Chief is a complicated, conflicted character. Elle Fanning (who first impressed me in Super 8) is also interesting as Figgis’ daughter, Loretta. Her final scene in the film is a fantastic scene in a diner with Joe, and Ms. Fanning knocks her monologue out of the park.
Chris Messina is terrific as Joe’s good friend, and partner in crime, Dion Bartolo. Mr. Messina is a gifted comedic actor, and while this is not an overtly comedic role, Mr. Messina plays all his scenes with a smile and a gleam in his eye that makes the character a lot of fun. He has great chemistry with Mr. Affleck. (Here again, though, I wish we got to know Dion more as a person. Who is this guy, what does he want, what makes him tick? The film is unconcerned with those questions. I thought at first, when Joe meets back up with Dion in Florida, that Dion was being set up to betray his friend Joe. The film doesn’t go there, which I think is good because it would have been an obvious plot twist, but on the other hand it removes any semblance of a character arc from Dion. He’s Joe’s good buddy at the beginning of the film, and Joe’s good buddy at the end of it. This is a problem shared by most of the film’s characters.)
Mr. Affleck has always had a knack for an action sequence, and there are several terrific set-pieces in Live by Night, most notably a car chase early in the film. The film comes to life in those moments, which display a talented director’s firm hand as well as the work of a fantastic assemblage of craftspeople behind the scenes. The period setting is brought to glorious life by the wonderful sets, props, costumes, etc.
I noted above, and it’s worth repeating, that Live by Night is gorgeous to look at. Mr. Affleck and cinematographer Robert Richardson have created a beautiful film, filled with incredible imagery and beautifully-composed shots.
I wish the film itself was stronger! It’s interesting to note that, in my opinion, Live by Night shares many of the problems of The Town. Both films felt like they were reaching to tell an epic story, but wound up abandoning their characters (particularly their female characters), resulting in a film that, in the end, felt hollow.
I’m disappointed, I wish I had liked this one more.