Ben Affleck’s bitterly disappointing gangster crime-drama Live By Night is far from the expected class which this actor turned writer-director has privileged us with in the past.
The most disappointing thing about Ben Affleck’s flaccid gangster drama Live By Night is that he can do so much better. We’ve seen it first hand. The likes of The Town and Argo are some of Hollywood’s best thrillers of recent years while his feature film debut as director Gone Baby Gone remains an incredibly assured piece of cinema from a fledgling filmmaker. Then, of course, there’s Good Will Hunting, the film he scribed with Matt Damon which saw the pair bestowed the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.
Like Gone Baby Gone, Live By Night sees Affleck return to the work of novelist Dennis Lehane, but unlike his previous triumph, here he chooses to adapt the screenplay himself rather than get someone else to do it. That’s the film’s first problem. It’s overwrought and baggy, choosing to pummel us with exposition without the subtleties of Affleck’s previous efforts. This Prohibition-era saga is languid in its development, dulling the senses without the characters or the dramatic tension to make us care.
I’m also not sure Affleck was completely happy with what he had to work with. But he only has himself to blame. Directing, writing, starring and producing this lame effort was perhaps too taxing. It shows most devastatingly in his vacant performance that borders on the alien. Glum from the outset, Affleck lacks the vitality of his best performance work; his eyes robotic in their lack of movement, his vocal work served only after a pack of twenty cigarettes (presumably). It’s also off-putting to see the 40-plus actor playing a guy who’s supposed to be about nineteen. If anyone wanted to throw the ego card at the actor turned writer-director there’s few who would argue about it.
We get that you’re sad Ben! But now so are we. And it has nothing to do with the quality of the drama or the strengths of Lehane’s novel. In fact, I’m not sure Affleck manages to extract anything good from what is a terrific book. I had far more fun reading this story than seeing it on the screen. Lehane’s emotions bubble under the surface of a sprawling plot that works better as an abstract complemented by that inner turmoil. Affleck can’t rekindle that on screen. It’s a real shame because he’s a director I usually have so much confidence in.
Even when the film should move into the comfort zone of action, it struggles to get the fires burning. The Town enjoyed far better action sequences as Affleck appears hamstrung by a desperation to make something that is both generically celebratory and somewhat unique. But there’s nothing new in Live By Night which ultimately pales in comparison to better gangster movies before it.
The fact Affleck has done such great work before Live By Night makes this effort more disappointing. If this was from a first time director, maybe I’d give it a little more slack. But from the man who adapted Lahane’s Gone Baby Gone so heroically, this is a film destined to be quickly forgotten about. Yes, it boasts style (thanks to DoP Robert Richardson) and some fine performances (thanks Zoe Saldana, Elle Fanning, Brendan Gleeson, Sienna Miller and Chris Cooper) but these qualities, importantly, don’t include Affleck’s contribution. In fact, the only thing Affleck has done here is mask a great story in mediocrity. He’s a talented guy, his previous work proves that – as writer, director and actor – but Live By Night can be filed alongside his infrequent raspberries like Gigli, Paycheck and Surviving Christmas!
Written by Rory Fish
Top 10 Films reviewed Live By Night on DVD courtesy of Warner Bros which released it on Blu-ray™ and DVD on May 22 and on Digital Download May 8.