Live By Night Review
Throughout the period in which Ben Affleck has shifted his focus towards directing, he has thrived when his subject matter relied on the poignancy of lean, simplistic, character-driven plots. Affleck’s fourth directorial effort, Live By Night, clearly aims to distance itself from that formula as it exalts ambition. However, the result of this is unwieldy meandering. As without the grit and taut nature that proved integral to Affleck’s prior successes, Live By Night unfolds as a well-intentioned but sadly disorganised and overstuffed mess. Despite an immersive technical scale via steady direction; vapid characters and disjointed pacing consumes a story that struggles to breathe life. With the inertness of Live By Night not awful, but enough to make the art feel incongruous to the artist.
Affleck plays Joe Coughlin, a disheartened World War One veteran who has summated himself a part of Boston’s criminal underworld. Coughlin’s disdain for the battlefield has compelled him to a life of crime; a world in which his volition becomes his power. However, as his recklessness brings near death and false imprisonment, his focus turns towards vengeance. Moving to Tampa Bay, a elaborate revenge plan begins to formulate. As his quest for power leads to a plethora of romantic and political alliances. Dealing with enemies such as crime bosses, christian fundamentalists and even the Ku Klux Klan. As he is pushed to his limits, Coughlin is forced to decipher what moral compromises he is willing to take if he wishes to be a prominent figure in his dog eat dog industry.
Live By Night does not hinder Ben Affleck’s directing prowess but it perhaps illuminates his capabilities as a storyteller. The film is outside his wheelhouse, it is a story more grander and more sprawling than his previous outings – it ultimately proves to be his undoing”. Live By Night is hollow, it has all the pieces needed to succeed and yet so little is realised due to a clear lack of vision. This is predominantly cited in a narrative that is severely unfocused due to too many plot points to balance, screeching any chance of momentum.
The film begins as a story about a cop father versus his outlaw son it then transitions to a revenge fable then to a romance between allies then a battle between criminals then a battle between criminals and the church. Before you know it there is a battle between the criminals and the activities of the Ku Klux Klan. Live By Night is dense and disorderly. There is no central theme to latch on to as a patchwork of subplots fail to achieve engrossment. The film is adapted from a Dennis Lehane novel, a source Affleck is familiar with, helming the excellent Gone Baby Gone. However, with Live By Night the adaptation process is a futile one. Story elements are overtly rushed and compacted to the point where it becomes insipid.
This transitions over to the development of the characters as with a multifarious level of subplots, the characters become sacrificial to the tenacity of the film’s plot. With so much ground to cover, the usage of dramatic heft goes awry and consequently the characters languish. Affleck has assembled a talented array of performers to headline the film and they in part upgrade thankless roles. But, nonetheless, these characters wither due to their motivation revolving around the influence of Affleck’s Coughlin. Coughlin is an incredibly bland gangster. For a film that is dictated by his supposed dark occupation and moral indifference, Coughlin is a monotonous protagonist. The minimal pacing and poor writing is evidentially reflected with how little talented performers such as Chris Cooper and Elle Fanning have to craft compelling archetypes. But when their characters are present to emphasise the film’s tedious lead, the film comes close to collapsing.
And what is more dispiriting is that the visceral accompaniment to such a bland narrative and forgetful characters is nothing short of immaculate. Aesthetically, Live By Night is a marvel. Cinematographer Robert Richardson weaves beautiful imagery throughout, producing award calibre work. While elements such as production design and costume design are both top notch. These elements elevate Live By Night immensely, crafting an infectious aura so lavish it holds your investment longer than the narrative deserves. But on a pure technical level, Affleck flourishes in orchestrating a tantalising backdrop. Imbued by rich colours and textures, his directorial strength is on full display with the near effortlessness it takes for him to efficiently craft a scene. The sense of style is irrefutably the highlight of the film even if it paradoxically manages to compound the lack of substance further.
As while there is a lot to be faulted with Live By Night – it is by no means a travesty but rather falls flat. Arguably, the film exerts a more languid response due to the expectation of an Oscar calibre product but with an end result far too flawed to ever be in that discussion. However, the predominant issue is that the film’s style over substance is far too problematic. As Affleck attempts to increase his scope, it proves to be too onerous a task when you begin to analyse his sensibilities as a filmmaker. The blasé outcome is bestowed with inspiration but frustratingly is never able to evoke the spirit of the works that Affleck clearly reveres. Live By Night is a misfire and serves as a testament that even the greats will have their occasional off days.