LIVE BY NIGHT
Live By Night had a lot of hallmarks into being yet another Oscar-winning film from Ben Affleck. Affleck directs, and he's had a good track record when he's behind the camera (Gone Baby Gone, The Town, Argo). Just as with Gone Baby Gone, Affleck goes to a Dennis Lehane novel to mine it for potential recognition. Unlike Gone Baby Gone or any of his other films, Live By Night is dull, long, confused, rambling, almost incoherent and frankly full of itself, a pompous indulgence that had a lousy screenwriter, a weak director, and a terrible actor.
And each of those was all one and the same.
Joe Coughlin (Affleck) is a sad World War I veteran who returns to his hometown of Boston and become in his own voice-over, an outlaw. He's a bit forlorn in his outlook but still a criminal, working to stay out of the turf war between Irish mobster Albert White (Robert Glenister) and Italian mobster Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone). Joe does fool around with White's moll, the Irish girl Emma Gould (Sienna Miller). Despite warnings from his cop father Thomas (Brendan Gleeson), Joe continues fooling around with Emma, until she's forced to betray him to an angry White.
Joe would have been killed, but a chance accident has saved him, though the cops arrest him for murdering other officers during his last bank heist. Thomas, with some influence and pressure, helps his boy get a much lighter sentence, and after his release Joe goes to Pescatore to join him in revenge for Emma, who is presumed dead.
Pescatore sends Joe to Florida, where he is to muscle out White in the illegal rum business (it is Prohibition at this time) and expand to narcotics and women. Joe has no problem working with Cubans, and soon he begins a passionate affair with Graciela (Zoe Saldana), an Afro-Cuban who is in the rum-running business with her brother.
First is Sheriff Figgis' brother-in-law, RD Pruitt (Matthew Maher, apparently auditioning for the Truman Capote story). Pruitt is a member of the Ku Klux Klan, who isn't keen on Joe's Catholicism or his interracial romance but who is willing to forsake white purity for a 60% share of the illegal trade. An offer of 15% is first taken, then violently declined. There's a gang war between the mob and the Klan, with the latter losing.
Next comes the Sheriff's daughter Loretta (Elle Fanning). We meet her once, when she heads off to Hollywood to become a star, only to end up a heroin-addicted whore. Joe gets hold of pictures showing her in this sad condition and puts the squeeze on Figgis to serve his brother-in-law on a silver platter, but now Loretta is back. She's evolved into some white-clad almost looney charismatic preacheress, speaking against all sorts of vice, including gambling. This puts a damper on Joe's plans to build a casino in Sarasota once Prohibition ends, which Joe sees coming.
Good thing for Joe that Loretta decides to kill herself, leaving a devastated Figgis alone, repeating one word over and over again, "Repent". Graciela and Joe have even more issues: they're in love and want to marry, but Joe spots a photo that might be of Emma, who may still be alive. Pescatore also comes to Florida to settle business with Joe, and Joe finds he's been set up as Pescatore and White have made an unholy union. Joe, however, has a few tricks up his sleeve, and he triumphs over White, Pescatore, and Pescatore's dimwitted son Digger (Max Casella, barely recognizable). He finds Emma, who declares herself free of everything.
Joe, Graciela, and their son appear happy, until a deranged Figgis shows up, shouting "REPENT!" and firing his gun into their house. Joe manages to kill Figgis, but not before in the melee Figgis manages to his Graciela. A devastated Joe buries her in Cuba, and he spends his life caring for their son.
Things go by so slowly, and yet despite this most of the characters are essentially unknown. Joe is rather opaque, Affleck's almost perpetual forlorn expression trying to pass itself off as moving or emotional. It does not help that Affleck still can't act, even in voice-over (something that I can't quite say about his brother Casey, who might have been a more interesting choice for the role). Affleck never showed that Joe was a good man to begin with: he was a criminal, he was screwing a woman he knew he shouldn't have been screwing, and if he had any great conflict within it got lost in how somber he tried to be.
When he tried to be 'a good man', Affleck was trying too hard. When he tried to be menacing and gangster-like, it was slightly amusing. Ben Affleck is as threatening as a turkey sandwich in Live By Night.
Everyone else pretty much faded into the unintentional hilarity of the self-serious project. Cooper was a bit comical as Figgis, again unintentionally so. I hope his final scene, screaming "REPENT!" as he flays about the front yard of the Coughlins' home doesn't come back to haunt him. Bless him, for he tried to work with the script (also by Affleck) but it did nothing for him. Maher as Figgis' racist brother-in-law was equally hilarious. He really should use clips from Live By Night if they ever have another Truman Capote biopic, because his voice and mannerisms all channeled the diminutive writer.
Saldana was probably the best of the lot, but her role didn't give her much to do apart from looking lovingly at the beauty that is Ben Affleck.
Affleck is really a top-notch director, which makes Live By Night all the more puzzling and frustrating. He was clearly aiming for a serious crime drama, but there is such a thing as too serious to where it is almost if not actually self-conscious about how serious everything should be. There's no life, there's no real emotion in Live By Night. It's too wrapped up in being serious it failed to be entertaining, let alone good.
Affleck was just lost in every aspect of filmmaking. He isn't an actor, and Live By Night shows it (despite his claims, there was no evolution to his character). His screenwriting was disastrous: such clunky lines as "The king and pawn end up in the same box in the end," is what passes for wit. Adding more problems, the overall story goes from one thing to another without a real sense of cohesion. The mobsters get in a war with the Klan, and once that's over, we go to another foil: this reformed drug addict (whom we barely know and is apparently spanked into preaching the Word). We see her for less than two minutes the first time, then when she returns (with only photographs to indicate her fall from grace), she's suddenly the Aimee Semple McPherson of northern Florida. Then she confesses to Affleck that her faith isn't as strong as she suggests, and kills herself off camera.
I truly wonder if Affleck would not have been better served to have essentially cut out the first twenty minutes or so, the entire Boston sequences, and started with his arrival in Florida, allowing us a blank slate with some flashbacks indicating his fall to the good man gone bad he wanted to portray. It would have allowed us more time to show these other characters who pop in and out, to flesh them out more instead of hitting them every so often.
For the longest time, what I thought would be a major plot point (Joe's revenge against White for Emma), was all but forgotten until it got thrown in at the end for a chance at a shoot-out. So much time was lost on other things going hither and yon that being reminded of it came as a bit of a jolt.
The failure of Live By Night lies squarely on Ben Affleck's broad shoulders. As an actor, he still hasn't shown promise. As a director, he focused too much on the look and not much if any on the characters. As a screenwriter he didn't know where to start or stop a story and just let it spin out this way and that. Affleck is lost in the trappings of the Roaring 20s and took things way too seriously. He was just lost, and due to that, so was the audience.