Occasionally a movie pops up in the theatre that I have every intention of checking out but, for whatever reason, I just don’t get the chance (damn you, Life!!!). This is one of those titles. My main two reasons for wanting to check it out were the directing talents of Ben Affleck, and the time period and setting; Prohibition in the Roaring 20’s, deep in the thick of the bootlegging trade. I love the gangster genre, with some notable titles like The Godfather Trilogy, Once Upon a Time in America (1984), The Untouchables (1987) and Miller’s Crossing (1990) standing out in my Top 100 Films list. Say what you will about Affleck, I think he’s a capable actor and a surprisingly deft director. I was impressed with his first film, the underrated Gone Baby Gone (2007) and even more so when he hit the screens with 2010’s The Town, which I loved. I have yet to see Argo (2012), but I’ve heard plenty of good buzz surrounding it (I just scored a Blu ray copy at a local pawn shop…review coming soon!). So hearing that Affleck had turned his attention to the gangster genre, I was interested. Then it was released…eventually losing Warner Bros. approx. $75 million and was only seen in theatres for about 3 weeks. It was a HUGE flop and the first real blemish on Affleck’s directing filmography. But 95% of the time, a film-maker is setting out to make the best movie they can, they don’t mean for a movie to fall short. Having confidence in Affleck’s abilities, I’ve been legitimately curious to finally get the chance to check Live by Night out in order to make up my own mind and then*poof!*…it appeared on Netflix. So on a lazy long weekend Monday afternoon, I grabbed my wine-gums and my pad n pencil…and hit Play.
- Cool intro. Good use of historical photos. There was nothing ground-breaking about it, but I liked the odd 3D effect that the authentic-looking pictures were given. Stylish start.
- Forbidden love story seems eerily similar to ‘Miller’s Crossing’. I love the Coen Bros. 1990 Irish vs Italian mob flick and one of the key subplots is that the main character ‘Tom’ (Gabriel Byrne), enforcer for the Irish mob, is secretly banging his bosses girlfriend…which naturally leads to some awkward (and bloody) scenarios.
- Good visual style. This really didn’t come as much of a surprise, as Affleck has proven he has a stylish and competent ‘eye’. Even if the movie was shit…I was confident that it would at least be pretty.
- Affleck better behind the camera. Wooden performance. Shoulda cast someone else. Plus, his accent keeps slipping. Normally I think Ben Affleck is a decent actor, but here something seems off. His reluctant gangster character, ‘Coughlin’ has zero personality and moves through scenes like he has a stick up his ass. Affleck does NOT look comfortable. I’m sure that it didn’t help that he was going through a high-profile divorce while also battling alcoholism WHILE also helming this big-budget Warner Bros movie…and it shows. And the goddamn accent! In some scenes, he’s putting on a thick Bwaahston accent, while in others…nothing. Not even an attempt.
- Good car chase / gunfight. Exciting. Pure action movie shit! Exactly what that says. There’s a surprisingly well-done shoot-out and subsequent car chase using a number of beautiful cars from the ‘20s that was genuinely fun to watch.
- Very slick production design. I read that this flick was budgeted at around $108 million and you can see a lot of that cash on screen. The costumes, props and sets were solid, with nice attention to small details.
- Feels like adults playing dress-up at times. Exactly that…there were times when it was too easy to see through the glossy veneer and witness what it actually was, which is adults dressing up and playing ‘gangster’. It felt too ‘on-the-nose’ sometimes.
- Yep, the ole Gabriel Byrne treatment. As mentioned earlier, in Miller’s Crossing, Byrne’s ‘Tom’ gets busted for dicking his mobster boss’s moll, and gets his ass punched down a hall lined with armed button men, former comrades-in-arms. Much the same thing happens here.
- Love the side-kick goon, Dion. Good character. Funny. Actor Chris Messina does a bang-up job with the happy-go-lucky right-hand-man to ‘Coughlin’, who’s small character arc I actually approved of.
- Is that…Anthony Michael Hall? It is! And he’s definitely not ‘Brian’ from The Breakfast Club anymore. Either that’s some brave make-up, or he’s showing his years. Wow.
- Affleck is stiff AF! Doesn’t seem comfy. This again goes back to the troubles behind the scenes and the fact that Ben just doesn’t seem to be into this project, at least not as an actor, and it shows.
- Holy shit! Accent, Affleck…ACCENT!! By this point, the on again, off again Bwaahston accent was just pissing me off with it’s consistent inconsistency.
- Chris Cooper! I’ve always liked Chris Cooper, going back to when I first noticed him in American Beauty (1999). There’s something reptilian about him, but that just adds to his performances.
- Some really nice cinematography. Again, this was expected. Affleck may not have been engaged with his performance but he and his team did capture some really nice images that they cut together well.
- Ah! White Savior Moment. KKK. There’s a scene where Affleck is chilling with some of them fine colored folk…and some good ole boy honkys in KKK robes roll up and burn a giant cross on the front lawn. Well, guess who strides on out to meet the racist assholes…you got it…The Affleck.
- Story starting to meander. Again, it’s all there in that sentence. I was starting to drift, where my investment in the story was concerned.
- Affleck is pretty weak in this lifeless performance. By now, his disinterest was becoming obvious and it was now just the ‘character’. Boo.
- Is that Ella Fanning? It was.
- And the pace slows. Getting bored. I don’t even need to expand on that one…do I?
- Well, THAT’s convenient. Chance look at a photograph. This was just bullshit. ‘Coughlin’ JUST HAPPENS to look at a certain framed picture on a dude’s wall, that JUST HAPPENS to show something key to a question from his past. It was cheap and lazy, from a writing perspective.
- The romantic sub-plots could’ve easily been dropped. No bullshit, way too much of this movie’s bloated-feeling 2 hour and 9 minute run-time is dedicated to a few of ‘Coughlin’s lifeless romantic conquests. They add NOTHING to the story. Could’ve gotten this movie lean n mean if they’d dropped all that meaningless padding.
- Affleck has the same constipated expression throughout. Seriously, he keeps up this blank, mildly tense look for the whole flick and it just looks like he’s trying to work out some arrangement with his colon.
- Finally, a gunfight! The movie finally tapped the gas with another decent shoot-out.
- Hokey, melodramatic arc for Affleck. After everything that he was involved in, including robbery and murder, he essentially *SPOILERS* gets away with it and seems to lead some saintly life.
- Oh, of course she dies! And Affleck’s ‘grief’ is hilarious. *SPOILERS* So the last love-interest, played by Zoe Saldana (Avatar) gets cut down in a tacked on-feeling shoot-out of an epilogue, leaving ‘Coughlin’ bawling over her warm corpse, but doing so with chuckle-inducing level of bad acting.
So there you have it. My scribbles on Live by Night.
In a nutshell…I see why Live by Night went down in flames at the box office. It’s one of those movies where everything SEEMS to be in place to guarantee success…but a piece of the equation is missing and it quickly falls into Obscurity as a result. There’s some good stuff that pops up here and there, but the overall story and characters are mostly boring and lifeless. This one needed to be tightened, either on the page or in the editing room. As it is, it just ends up being unremarkable, with nothing that sticks with you after the credits roll. A middle section that sags noticeably in the 2nd Act didn’t help either. Hell, I just watched it, and I’m having trouble dredging up anything noteworthy that stuck with me. A couple cool action scenes and some really nice attention to detail are all I can point out. Beyond that, it was kind of a waste of time. In many respects, it reminds me of Brian De Palma’s bizarre and oddly forgettable 2006 flick The Black Dahlia, where the ingredients were there, but…it just wasn’t meant to be. I feel bad saying that, as it’s clear that effort WAS put in (for both titles), but the end result didn’t manage to elevate beyond any number of half-assed ‘gangster’ flicks that we’ve had tossed at us over the years. In fact, I would say that if you needed to avoid any movie in Ben Affleck’s current filmography, like your life depended on it…then you can safely avoid this one. You won’t be missing anything.