By: Henry J. Fromage (Four Beers) –
Ben Affleck writing and directing another Dennis Lehane adaptation, this time a decades-spanning look at a life of crime that began in maneuvering between the Irish and Italian mobs in Beantown and continued to run-running and empire-building in Florida, with a cast that includes Chris Cooper, Brendan Gleeson, Sienna Miller, Zoe Saldana, Elle Fanning, Chris Messina, and, of course, Ben Affleck? Sure. fucking. thing, right?
Ben Affleck, Director, certainly has not taken a step back in technical craft or polish. Live By Night looks beautiful, courtesy of master cinematographer Robert Richardson, Affleck’s own great eye, and the state of Florida. This is just a well-polished period piece without that CGI magic hour sheen Allied was afflicted with. He also hasn’t lost his flair for staging action scenes, with the action choreography at times almost making the film feel more substantial than it is, with top-notch practical gore effects to boot. No weightless CGI blood poofs here.
On the acting front, I have to give it up to Elle Fanning, who takes a nothing role which in many actresses’ hands would become cliche or caricature, and makes it something substantial. The sky’s the limit for this girl, who I’m not even sure is old enough to drink yet.
*Searches* Make that ‘old enough to smoke’.
Affleck never seems quite sure what he wants this film to be- a Godfather or Scarface-indebted rise to power? Spoiler alert, the Corleones and Tony Montana might have been protagonists, but were definitely not the good guys. There is a difference.
A bruising action film with a comic lightness here and there? Well, decent job on the first part, and complete whiff on the latter.
Why does Mindy’s ex have Billy-Bob teeth?
A searing examination of the blood and tears buoying up the American Dream? Well, if you come out and say it, it’s not subtext anymore, dammit, no matter how many overqualified actors you get to deliver that text.
Every other line feels like the devastating or wise coda an entire film builds up to. Some are good, some are cliches that are more mold than bread at this point, but none sound like anything a real person would actually say. This plus the voiceover speaks to Affleck trying to condense something that is not feature-length into a feature, but even then, some of these lines would get you laughed out of the building in a freshman creative writing class. To add insult to injury, more than one speech about the upper class keeping the man down, or the cost of violence, comes across as insincere after witnessing so much of it for our entertainment pleasure, coming from a multimillionaire who had an affair with his au pair. That’s pretty much the most bougie thing possible.
As Oberst summed it up, Affleck’s protagonist has a serious scent of White Savior about him. There’s a scene where seconds after we see our first African-Americans in the entire film in a jazz bar, Affleck walks out to witness a KKK cross blazing. This just feels insincere and icky for some reason. “I run contraband, rob, and occasionally murder, but I’m not a Racist!” Most characters manage to avoid all of those things, Ben.
He then goes and quadruple underlines this by producing a Crackerbilly caricature antagonist that makes latter-day Spike Lee look subtle by comparison. What a face for it, though.
Picture Matt Maher done up as an insane hillybilly. It’s pretty intense.
By the time the voiceover reveals Affleck and Saldana have started an orphanage/battered women’s shelter with all their ill-gotten gains, you’re either going to laugh out loud like I did, or throw up in your mouth a bit. The film doesn’t go full-on happily ever after from there, thankfully, but close enough. Affleck gets to have his moral rectitude cake and fill it full of bullet holes, too.
While many have pinned Ben Affleck casting his favorite actor, Ben Affleck, that’s really the least of the issues with the whole deal- he does fine. It’s that the main character himself is just not a real person; a man who doesn’t shoot people until he does, a man who bloviates about the undesirables inheriting the earth while having others murder his way for him to the top, a man who doesn’t sell drugs, oh no, but who is happy with gambling and alcohol. Wearing a white hat doesn’t mean you are one.
Listen, there’s a good film somewhere inside Live By Night, and there’s clearly a talented director and not half-bad actor still inside Ben Affleck’s skin. Hopefully he learns from this.
Live By Night (2016) Drinking Game
Take a Drink: for overwrought dialogue
Take a Drink: for tommy guns
Take a Drink: whenever Chris Messina flashes his Billy-Bob teeth
Take a Drink: for voiceover exposition
Take a Drink: for Skinemax-quality sex scenes
Take a Drink: when every mention or appearance of Albert White
Do a Shot: for goddamn cartoon characters (there are several)
Do a Shot: for that freakin’ B.A.R. Admittedly, that was awesome.