Live By Night was written, directed by and stars Ben Affleck as a disenchanted World War I veteran turned small-time criminal in early Prohibition-era Boston who runs violently afoul of the Irish mafia when he embarks on a doomed secret romance with the Boss’s girlfriend. Violently beaten and wrongly imprisoned for the murder of a police officer, he swears allegiance to the rival Italian mafia and embarks on elaborate revenge plan that begins with taking over the rum-running racket in Florida. He forms a romantic and political alliance with Zoe Saldana as a well-connected Cuban dissident-in-exile but also finds himself in a multi-front war between his own growing criminal empire, the Klu-Klux-Klan and a Christian fundamentalist religious cult lead by the disturbed daughter of a corrupt police chief – repeatedly confronting his own moral convictions and the evils he’s willing to compromise with.
And somehow… it kind of sucks.
Strange, right? Doesn’t that sound like a pretty good movie? And yet, Live By Night is a failure on almost every noteworthy level. This is a bafflingly bad movie that stumbles over and over by biting off significantly more than it can chew in terms of scope, scale, narrative ambitions and just plain old “list of stuff that happens” and yet somehow also feeling inappropriately languid and laid back. Watching it play out and gradually realizing that not only isn’t it good but that it’s never going to become good feels like a small-scale slow-motion tragedy; a literal death by a thousand cuts where each small creative misstep piles up until the whole structure collapses.
In some ways, it’d almost be more digestible if the film was worse, i.e. if Affleck wasn’t such a technically competent filmmaker with a solid command of cinematic storytelling (and a decent actor as well) we might be left with the kind of freewheeling mess that can attain a certain enthusiastic appeal: At the very least a scenario wherein an actor is writing and directing a sprawling period crime epic starring himself as history’s most morally-righteous gangster should be capable of delivering on the base pleasures of a narcissistic vanity project.
But since anyone who’s seen Gone Baby Gone, The Town and Argo can tell you, thus far Affleck’s specialty has been solid, workmanlike, meat-and-potatoes entertainments that rigidly resist either self-glamorizing or unnecessary directorial flourish. This makes him almost precisely the wrong person to either direct or star in a movie that feels almost destined to end up as exactly that. It’s likely that he simply really liked Dennis Lehane’s original book and (as was said to be the case with Argo) couldn’t get a studio to back it without offering his own name for the marquee. But whatever the case it feels like an almost fascinating mismatch of talent and project.
The main recurring issue is that the story is sprawling and unfocused without any kind of central theme, and you just can’t lack for that when your narrative jumps around as much as this one does: It’s about Irish versus Italian mobs in Boston. Then it’s about the hero’s relationship with his father. Then it’s about the complex racial caste system of early Florida. Then it’s about the dark historic catch-22 of organized crime becoming the defacto bulwark for minority American populations against systemic white supremacy. Then it’s about organized religion as a tool of political oppression. Then it’s about familial loyalty and blood ties. Not in the sense of “wow, there’s so many different elements being juggled here!” Each of those ideas comes up, becomes the focus of the movie for a few minutes, then immediately drops and gets replaced by something else… and very few of them actually end up becoming relevant again.
Perhaps this would have worked in a miniseries or just a significantly longer movie, and you can already tell that Live By Night has been cut down significantly from whatever it was back when they figured this would be an Oscar contender instead of a January write-off. A lot of the story is advanced by droning voiceover narration from Affleck that positively reeks of having to paper-over plot points they no longer have time to actually show happening. And supposedly an entire major subplot involving Affleck’s brother set in Los Angeles was completely cut from the film (along with actor Scott Eastwood) even though the character is repeatedly referenced right up to the end of the film for seemingly no narrative or thematic reason.
Are there good parts? Sure – it looks nice, Affleck isn’t bad even though he’s really kind of wrong for the part and mostly looks silly wearing a bunch of weirdly over-sized suits that one has to assume are meant to disguise how absurdly jacked he has to be for Batman. And there’s some pretty good action business that crops up whenever it’s time for a shoot-out. But yeah… the bulk of it is dead on arrival and adds up to nothing special.
This one’s a heartbreaker. I’ll always root for Ben Affleck – and not only because can tell he has a miserable time slogging through the increasingly terrible DC Extended Universe movies to get Warner Bros to keep backing the stuff he actually wants to make. But it didn’t work out this time, and Live By Night handily represents the 2016 “prestige movie” scene going out on an appropriate whimper.