Despite boasting some handsome visuals, beautiful production values and is bolstered by a sprawling but heavily under-utilised cast, Affleck's latest feature promises much but fails to deliver.
Ben Affleck is three for naught when it’s come to his directorial career. With the tightly wound police thriller/drama Gone Baby Gone to the fantastic heist action in The Town and finally with his Oscar-winning true story Argo, he’s built quite a reputation behind the camera. Combining once again with novelist Dennis Lehane, bringing one of his books to life as well putting together a terrifically stacked cast, Affleck was looking to start 2017 with an almighty bang.
The story follows the life of disillusioned soldier Joe Coughlin, who trades in his life as a law abiding citizen for a life of crime once he returns from the World War One. Despite self-proclaiming he doesn’t want to be a gangster, Coughlin gets caught up in the rum business in Tampa during the prohibition and slowly builds an empire of his own. Having flirted with the idea of adapting this for quite some time, this eventually ended up being a sort of passion project for Affleck. In recent interviews he’s stated his annoyance at how his involvement in the DC expanded universe has somewhat overshadowed the work he’s put into this and you can see why. Every single frame is lovingly put together and acts as a love letter to the gangster films of old.
It’s clear that from a technical standpoint, Affleck’s fourth film is his most lavish and accomplished. The set design, the costumes and the general feel of the film is rich and undeniably pretty to look at. Everything from the classic, old-fashioned zoot suits to the accurately modelled cars bring the roaring 20’s back to life. Having taken his time to painstakingly recreate the time period, Affleck immerses you in the world of rum-running gangsters, mob violence and prohibition corruption. The only drawback on a purely visual level is that at times, the filming sometimes looks a little too glossy. Combining both digital and classic film, cinematographer Robert Richardson does capture some stunning visuals. A particular scene, which follows Coughlin and fellow gangsters glide through some of the rivers in Tampa during sunset, looks astonishing. However at times, it feels a little too clean. Some of the actions sequences especially, cried out for a little grit to go with the violence.
Adapted from the hefty book by Affleck himself (with the sole writing credit), he has to wrestle with a lot of themes and a background that has made both the novel and Lehane so celebrated. As with a lot of book to film adaptations, the problem writers and directors face is the balancing act between what is essential to the story in order to portray a strong narrative and what needs to be left out so that the film is properly paced. Unfortunately this is where the film’s biggest flaw lies. Unlike Affleck’s adaptation of Gone Baby Gone, his attempt to wrestle the sprawling narrative that Lehane had cooked up, into a film that barely breaks the 2 hour mark, has left the film unbalanced and undercooked. Watching at times feels like you’re looking at a beautiful exterior that harbours a hollow shell. In attempting to make sure he hits all the gangster story beats, it becomes increasingly disjointed and frustratingly throwaway.
There’s no doubt that beneath the surface of what it does bring to the screen, there’s so much rich detail and more developed subplots that could have not only strengthened the main plot, but given weight to the countless other aspects that were seemingly floating around. It’s very difficult to chart a man’s rise to the top without it feeling either rushed or undeserved; very few films have managed to make it feel believable whilst also making it entertaining. Those that have, have gone on to be recognised as classics of the genre. Scorsese’s Goodfellas, Leone’s Once Upon Time in America even Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will be Blood are examples of a single man’s rise to power. Whilst Affleck has yet to reach the likes of Scorsese or Leone, he had a chance to simultaneously create a love letter to those films whilst at least rubbing shoulders with them. A somewhat unusual complaint, but the film was absolutely crying out for an additional 30 minutes at the very least to do justice to itself. Anyone can see that watching the theatrical cut, either Affleck or the studio have significantly chopped the narrative to its bare bones, leaving possibly a much more coherent, richer experience than we get.
The cast is stuffed to the brim with fantastic talent. Leading the cast and completing the triple threat of directing, writing and acting, Affleck’s Coughlin is ironically one of the weaker performances. Ending up with having to carry the film’s authenticity, Affleck doesn’t have what it takes to truly make you believe in Coughlin’s rise. The supporting players however, are uniformly excellent. Chris Messina as Coughlin’s right hand man is a charming presence whenever onscreen but unfortunately is the only other person apart from Affleck who gets significant screen time. Chris Cooper, Brendan Gleeson, Elle Fanning, Zoe Saldana and Sienna Miller are equally fantastic in their roles but are all shortchanged getting limited screen time, a hangover issue from the film’s script and pacing.
Live By Night (2016) directed by Ben Affleck, is distributed in the UK by Warner Bros Pictures. Certificate 15.