Live By Night has all of the pieces to be something exceptional. It has a proven director and writer in Ben Affleck, a stellar cast, a fantastic setting, and just reeks of cool at every turn. It is a gangster/heist flick set in deep south, prohibition Florida, and has a plot fueled by revenge. What more can you ask for?
Well, the answer is a lot. You can ask for a lot more.
Live By Night is a film that tries so hard to be something bigger and more profound than it really is and results in a surprising misstep for golden boy Affleck. One could argue that since his directorial debut with Gone Baby Gone, Affleck has built on his experience as a filmmaker and storyteller, culminating in the Oscar winning Argo in 2012. With each film, he seems to iron out his flaws and learn from his mistakes. Yet, that is far from the case with Live By Night, as it showcases nothing learned and feels amateurish. It is generic on nearly every level, lacks any true excitement or suspense, and feels phoned in on nearly aspect.
To explain the story of Live by Night would only confuse a reader. In fact, as I write this review I am having a hard time myself recalling the plot, as there really is no structure to the film. Affleck takes all sorts of generic gangster movie plot points and peppers them throughout the film, while injecting romantic subplots, unnecessary religious characters, and a really weird combination of villains. Nearly every character’s motive can be questioned and trying to find anyone to cheer for proves extremely difficult. Affleck’s character, Joe Coughlin, is an anti-hero without the charm or deliciousness of chewing the scenery, and is simply vanilla. He is a blank slate who exists only to move a story forward. Luckily for Affleck (and for us), he manages to keep the character afloat with his built in charisma and likability. Had anyone else of a lesser caliber played the role, it may have proven impossible to find any sort of redemption.
Now usually with a film like this, a weak plot can be easily forgiven or forgotten if the other aspects shine. Messy story but awesome violence? I can forgive that. Slow plot but incredible visuals? I can forgive that too. But sadly, the plot and writing are not the only muted things in the film. Everything feels watered down. The action sequences are few and far between, the villains are throwaway genre cutouts, and the heavy CGI rendered 1920s sets leave little to impress. Perhaps the only positive aspect is the change of scenery for the gangster film, as it is set in Florida instead of the usual New York, Boston, or Chicago. But even then, the location fails to be a character on its own and just plays backdrop to a lot of nothing happening.
I wanted to love this film. Ever since Affleck started turning his career around, I have been a huge supporter and believer. I was even overeager concerning his casting of my beloved Batman and stood by him after the misstep that is Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. But Live By Night is a hard movie to love. Even going in optimistic, I tried to pull at any positive I could and hold it close, telling myself it would all come together in the end. But alas, there was little payoff. In fact, the last ten minutes of the film are perhaps the weakest, with a forced bookend finale that leaves only a sour taste in your movie-mouth. Even right after walking out of the theater I recognized it as being a somewhat decent film but after brewing in my my head the last 24 hours, I struggled further to find redeeming qualities.
On the surface, Live By Night is cool. Kind of. It has the elements of something you really want to love, but it slowly lets you down as the story progresses, leaving you not necessarily disappointed, but apathetic. Perhaps the biggest casualty of Affleck’s year is not the superhero opus of the summer, but his own project. Which is unfortunate, given the quality of work he has showcased in the past. As a fan of both the actor and the director, I hope Affleck can turn it around in his next outing when he directs The Batman. God only knows how I will feel if he fucks that up.
The Good: Individual pieces that seem strong on the surface, with a glossy layer of cool plastered all over
The Bad: Misuse of each of the above pieces, with a muted tone and lack of emotion throughout
The Ugly: Essentially no coherent plot and a completely unnecessary finale
Have you seen Affleck’s latest? Let us know what you think about it below!