Live by Night was directed by Ben Affleck and also stars Affleck as well as Elle Fanning, Brendan Gleeson, Zoe Saldana and Chris Cooper. The screenplay was written by Affleck based on an Edgar award-winning novel by Dennis Lehane.
Now I like Ben Affleck as an actor and as a director. Argo, Gone Baby Gone and The Town are really just brilliantly directed movies, very sharp and clear, and without question Affleck has earned the awards and praise he received for these movies. Live by Night is also very well directed, with some beautiful cinematography and every part of the production itself pulled off quite well. As a period piece, I had no problem believing that I was seeing some great representations of the roaring 20s and gangster life in Chicago and Florida. The problem is that the story as written by Affleck veers away from its setup in a very stilted manner and then proceeds to drive right off a cliff.
Without getting into spoilers, let me say this: this movie begins as one kind of movie and then takes that setup and throws it all out the window once the second act begins and you are literally wondering as you watch it play out what the hell just happened. It doesn’t really recover until the climactic shootout and wrap up, but by then it’s such a confused piece of…nothing…so the conclusion ends up falling flat.
The acting is top notch – it really is – although Affleck’s and Saldana’s accents do a bit of an on-again-off-again act from scene to scene that was a bit distracting. But what was much more on-again-off-again was the central character of this movie, Joe Coughlin. As written and played by Affleck, he is alternately a patriot, a criminal, a lover, a family man, a caring community investor, a blackmailer, a Prohibition-era rum runner and a gangster. There’s this idea that he’s sort of this good guy who went bad at some point and is trying to get back to his basically good self but none of it is convincing because he’s leading a life of crime and murder which he has the power to walk away from any time he wants. Yet he’s not an evil, horrible person at his core and it’s frankly a real mystery why he is living the life that he leads. There’s a revenge motivation that is supposed to be driving him, but the story and his actions throughout it aren’t consistent with that theme. It’s actually a bit like a billard ball, bouncing around on a pool table but never landing in the pocket.
I was confused by this and got curious about the source material, so I looked up the original novel that Affleck based his screenplay on. Now here’s the thing – every problem that I had with things that just didn’t make any sense for the characters to do in the movie were things that the characters in the book didn’t ever do. It’s like Affleck changed basic character motivations and events to fit his vision of how the story should play out and honestly I couldn’t follow what he was thinking. The book made a lot more sense and if he’d stuck with that, then the story would have flowed from its setup to its conclusion in a much more satisfying way.
Affleck is a smart and very talented actor and director and this film is really his first big stumble in a while. I am sure he will not repeat this mistake in the future. If you want to see some great period scenery and some great actors doing some halfway decent work despite a clunky and awkward storyline, then this movie is for you but personally I don’t recommend it. I’m giving Live by Night a rating of Meh.
You let me know what you think. I’m always willing to hear your feedback and if you think I got this right, wrong or sideways. As always, thank you for watching.