Ben Affleck was a joke a little over a decade ago. He was tabloid fodder every week due to his relationship with Jennifer Lopez, while at the same time having a string of terribly received films starting with 2003's "Daredevil." With 2007's "Gone Baby Gone" Affleck quietly slipped into the director's chair and made one of the finest mystery thrillers of the 21st century. Affleck had by then ceased to be a joke and became a serious awards contender with almost every project he put his name on. With 2010's Oscar- nominated "The Town" and 2012's Oscar-winning "Argo," Affleck became a prestige filmmaker with only three films under his belt.
The problem with his cinematic reputation is that every film he makes from now on will be treated as something serious. Even though "Live By Night" is a sprawling Prohibition-era gangster film, the book it's based on is pretty pulpy and lurid. Keep in mind that author Dennis Lehane also wrote "Shutter Island," a thriller that's equally goofy as it is intense.
Affleck brought on the brilliant Robert Richardson ("JFK" and "Hugo") as cinematographer, Jess Gonchor ("No Country for Old Men" and "True Grit") as production designer and handled scripting duties himself. The result is a film that has a gorgeous visual style with the camera swooping and dancing through every frame like it's making the next "Goodfellas," but it's not even the next "Boardwalk Empire."
The biggest problem with the film is Affleck himself. With his trademark smirk and deadpan delivery, it's hard to become invested in the story of Joe Coughlin, a small-time crook in Boston who works his way up the ranks to become one of the biggest gangsters in Florida. Affleck is too blank here, unable to express the amount of emotion necessary for the audience to gain insight into his motivations. It's easy to imagine how much better "Live By Night" would be with someone like Tom Hardy, Michael Fassbender or, hell, even Matt Damon in the lead role.
"Live By Night" is a pulpy gangster tale that's treated like a prestige picture. You can almost hear the producers holding their breath in anticipation of a wheelbarrow full of Oscars. While there are a few laughs to be had (mostly from the always-reliable Chris Messina as Affleck's right hand man), the script takes itself so seriously that all of the fun is leached out of it.
When the film is focused on gunfights and car chases, Affleck shows never-before-seen chops as an action filmmaker (which bodes well for his upcoming "Batman" picture), but everything else is a mess. Affleck still shows enough skill in the director's chair to cast this as a sophomore slump (four movies in), but it's still a glaring sign that Affleck is still trying to figure out his strengths as a director while ignoring his limitations as an actor.
Live By Night
Dir. Ben Affleck
Old Mill Stadium 16 & IMAX