REVIEW: 'Live by Night' is a hollow mess of gangster tropes and social critiques

 Ben Affleck and Chris Messina star in 'Live by Night'.

Ben Affleck and Chris Messina star in 'Live by Night'.

One of the posters for Live by Night makes a claim about its lead character that’s supposed to sound menacing. Over top of a glowering shot of writer/director/producer/star (yes, he has that many credits) Ben Affleck are the words “Joe was once a good man”. But what you find out pretty quickly about Joe is that even the implied transition from good to bad is too much for Live by Night to handle. It suggests a level of character development that’s woefully missing from Affleck’s directorial follow up to *cough, splutter* 2013’s Best Picture winner Argo. Sadder still, it’s only one of the many problems that plague a film we were kind of excited about only a few months ago.

Joe Coughlin (Affleck) starts out as a small-time hood in Boston in the 1920s, knocking over illegal card games and banks and trying to avoid fraternizing with either the Irish mob or the Mafia. Circumstances (of course) lead Joe to break this inner code of self-determination and he’s eventually assigned to become the Mafia’s man in Florida, coordinating the Prohibition trade of rum and pushing competition out of Tampa.

Upon Joe’s arrival in Florida, a wide network of different ethnic factions is unrolled in a chunk of exposition courtesy of Joe’s second-in-command Dion (Chris Messina). Despite the dramatic potential of watching Joe learn this new scene and play the various criminal organizations off each other, the film abandons the complexities of its setting almost immediately. It’s content to skip through Joe’s takeover of the city and set him up as the new crime boss, only to have the movie then bounce between a staggering number of B-stories. It’s as though someone (somehow) decided that a movie about 1930s gangsters dressing in fine clothing and blasting each other with Thompson submachine guns had lost some of its visceral appeal, and needed to load up on social commentary as well.

 Elle Fanning and Chris Cooper and among the many talented people in the cast.

Elle Fanning and Chris Cooper and among the many talented people in the cast.

What’s on the docket for Live by Night’s versions of Slate thinkpieces? Diverse topics like interracial marriage and general bigotry, the perils of religious fundamentalism, the slippery slope of human cruelty, and even the nature of freedom. Each item is handled with such indifference and lack of commitment that I was hard pressed to tell what the movie is even about at times. Is it that these issues affect criminals too? Or that the United States hasn’t changed much since the Depression? Your guess is as good as mine – all too often, the movie sprinkles in a KKK leader, a radical preacher or a gangster competitor that briefly poses a problem for Joe’s business, only to tire of the subject and wipe its hands of the minor villains with a comical lack of fanfare.

Live by Night’s tendency to carom between these ideas would be irritating enough, but the movie doubles down on taxing the audience by giving Affleck an outright bore of a main character to play. Joe Coughlin spends most of his time on screen stone-faced, which might be creepy if Joe ever did anything more cold-blooded than shoot a few people. Affleck’s performance saps the movie of its charisma, giving us little to engage with other than the nice costumes and sets on display.

Considering the level of Affleck’s involvement in the production, it’s hard to fathom why he’d make his most visible contribution so unenergetic. Then again, there’s always the possibility that complacency and time constraints are piling on: after riding the wave of his past directorial successes and a string of high-profile starring roles (especially following a dry period in the 2000s), perhaps Affleck’s mind was elsewhere – like wondering how he ever ended up making more superhero movies.

 Out of everyone on screen, Affleck seems to be having the least fun.

Out of everyone on screen, Affleck seems to be having the least fun.

Affleck didn’t go into the film poorly equipped, either. His supporting cast, which includes powerful performers like Brendan Gleeson, Zoe Saldana and Chris Cooper, as well as rising stars like Elle Fanning and Sienna Miller, find themselves in an all-too-common trap of “great cast, poor execution”. The source novel is by Dennis Lehane, whose other works (Gone Baby Gone, Shutter Island, The Drop) have translated successfully to the big screen in the past. Perhaps sensing that these elements weren’t coming together, Affleck seemingly tries to save things with a monotonous narration track that over-explains everything, which only makes a film that’s supposed to be set in a tropical paradise feel as chilly as its Boston prologue.

Yet for all its faults, Live by Night does accomplish something: it finally introduces some complexity into Affleck’s filmography as a director. Until now, he was a golden boy of actors-turned-directors: a successful debut begat another critical and commercial hit, which begat an Oscar darling. But as we all know, it’s no fun to talk about someone who always wins – there’s got to be some misfires to figure out where a director’s strengths are. Just don’t make me watch this thing again; its blend of bloody violence and slacktivism may turn out to be one of the worst ideas for the movies of 2017.

Live by Night gets one and a half stars out of four.

What did you think of Ben Affleck’s latest directorial effort? Is it a true misfire, or could it get rediscovered as a hidden gem in a few years’ time? Join the discussion in the comments section, and if you liked this review, share it with your friends and followers!