Live by Night and all the images you see in this review are owned by Warner Bros Pictures
Directed by Ben Affleck
Look, we’ve ALL had a rough year, but let’s a take a moment to remember the less fortunate among us. Ben Affleck somehow managed to be in a WORSE super hero movie than Daredevil; a movie made EVEN WORSE when compared to the brilliantly done Netflix series. Not only that, but he’s roped himself into what SHOULD have been a sure bet franchise (how could they fuck up with characters like BATMAN!?) for the next decade or so which is probably gonna be longer than the current administration, provided he doesn’t change the rules and have to start calling him King or Führer. I kid of course, but for someone who clawed his way back from obscurity the way Ben Affleck did, it’s kinda disheartening to watch him get stuck in the middle of that mess. Oh well, at least he gets to make his own movies while Warner Bros tries to get its shit together. Does this gangster flick that is MUCH more in the Affleck wheelhouse the kind of film we need right now, or is this the huge let down we all deserve? Let’s find out!!
The movie follows affable rogue Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck) who’s some bank robbing punk in Boston that plays by his own rules and answers to no one! Not even the two major mobs in the city, the Irish led by Albert White (Robert Glenister) and the Italians led by Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone), can seem to tame this wild beast! Well… there is ONE person who’s thumb he’s under, and that’s his lady love Emma Gould (Sienna Miller) who JUST SO HAPPENS to also be one of Albert White’s mistresses. Needless to say that shit goes down with Albert, and Joe is left for dead as is Emma who the movie ASSURES us is dead despite not bothering to show it (hm…) which means this movie is about one thing. REVENGA!! As soon as Joe is out of jail, he goes straight to Maso to work for him (giving up on his play by his own rules principals) to see if he can deliver Robert White on a silver platter. Maso agrees, but in return Joe has to run his operation all the way in Florida for the foreseeable future which is where the majority of this movie takes place as the Boston stuff is pretty much an extended set up for the rest of the movie. While there, he has to wrestle with the Cubans, the Klan, and religious nuts just to name a few in his hopes of keeping Maso happy enough to eventually deliver on his promise of dragging Albert White back out into the open. During his stay in Florida, he’ll come across many friends like Dion Bartolo (Chris Messina) and Graciela Corrales (Zoe Saldana), as well as just as many enemies like scumbag klansman (but I repeat myself) RD Pruitt (Matthew Maher) or the really annoying preacher girl Loretta Figgis (Elle Fanning) who came to Jesus SUPER hard after getting off heroin. Will Joe eventually get the REVENGA he’s so desperate for? Will any of that even matter now that he’s building up this new life for himself? Is this AT LEAST more cohesive than Batman v Superman?
Sweet criminy, what a slog this was! The way that Ben Affleck has risen from the ashes of his awful public persona in the mid-2000s is one of the more interesting Hollywood success stories in a while (right up there with The McConaissance), and he even managed to give a LITTLE bit of hope that the DCCU isn’t going to be completely awful with his performance in Batman v Superman being one of the highlights of the film. However, with word of the troubled state of his Batman solo movie and now THIS film? I’m starting to worry that the guy is gonna have another huge public flameout if he’s not careful. This movie is worrying in that it seems like he’s going backwards in terms of his skills as a filmmaker since it’s something that SHOULD be in his wheelhouse, and yet it comes off like a total mess. Maybe the guy is stretching himself too much what with this movie, his starring roles in The Accountant and Batman v Superman, and all the shit he has to clean up in the wake of Warner Bros and Zack Snyder’s fumbling of the DCCU; all of which must have made for a very busy 2015 for the guy. I hope that’s the case and that the problems with this film aren’t a sign of what to expect from him as a director going forward. If it is, then boy howdy! The DCCU must have made a wish on a Monkey’s Paw or something considering the luck it’s had!
So what does this movie manage to get so wrong? I didn’t know until after the movie that this is based on a book, but it makes sense considering how shambling and clunky the pacing is in here along with the awful narration and the excruciatingly large number of scenes in here that are just people babbling on and on and ON about stuff that we couldn’t possibly care about. More so than a book though, what I was reminded of most while watching this movie was Grand Theft Auto; probably four as that’s my best frame of reference, but this can apply to pretty much all of them. Grand Theft Auto is VERY deliberately paced. There’s usually a few hours in one location to set up the character and their relationships followed by an inciting incident by the main antagonist that catapults our hero to some other city to plot his revenge in the most securities way possible; getting involved like twenty other side stories and factions in the process. This works for GTA though because the story is there to uphold and provide context for the gameplay which, like the story, is MEANT to be meandering and to some degree superficial so as not to rob the player of much agency in their actions. You know what this DOESN’T work for? A FILM!! The movie plays out EXACTLY like that and since I can’t go run over a bunch of pedestrians or shoot rocket launchers (Ben Affleck certainly isn’t doing that either), all we’re left with is a story where character motivations and the overall focus varies from scene to scene. I have no idea what’s important and any given moment in this film because every few minutes our focus changes to something else entirely. I can see this working in a book or even a television show where the initial setup can simply serve as the launching off point for a series of vignettes, but that kind of story telling rarely works in something as rigidly structured as films are, and it certainly doesn’t work here.
Now an unfocused narrative can STILL work if the lack of a strong central through line is counterbalanced by incredibly engaging scenes that may not have made it through the editing process if they were TRYING to keep this cohesive. Unfortunately, this is a missed opportunity as well because the movie never really finds what its core engagement should be and SOMEHOW settles on watching our main character go to meeting after meeting after MEETING! Now I love a good talking scene as much as the next guy, but the only way that works is if you know the stakes. Take a look at Breaking Bad and whenever Walter White would meet with Gustavo. You know just how much was at stake and how each decision had devastating consequences. Without a strong understanding of what needs to be accomplished in a negotiation scene, we’re just watching people talk at each other and it’s simply not interesting. If the movie had been more focused and didn’t meander so much or have so many time jumps, these COULD have worked. Instead, we get these scenes that go into deep minutia of bullshit we don’t care about (how are we gonna corner the market on molasses!?) and it’s ultimately meaningless because we go to the next subplot before the consequences can really be felt. Now some of these scenes do work, particularly the ones that do exactly what I was talking about; provide the necessary context beforehand so the consequences are clear. In particular, the subplot with the Klan manages to stay on point throughout and finds a perfect mix between the talking scenes and the action scenes that reflect the consequences of those meetings in a satisfying manner. Those are the exception rather than the rule unfortunately, and because of that an unfocused uninvolving story becomes a miserable endurance test as they never shut the hell up about their non-existent and uninteresting problems.
There are good aspects to this which keeps it from being an AWFUL movie even if it is an unforgivably boring one. Ben Affleck still knows how to film crimes and the scenes where they ARE being violent are expertly shot and incredibly compelling. The big shoot-em-up finale is the highlight of the whole damn thing with Ben showing some serious action chops as he gets across the utter brutality of this kind of gangster violence while still making it exciting to watch. Oh, and free tip. The reason scenes like this can work with less context than say a scene of two people is because death is a PRETTY fast way of establishing what’s at stake, so action heavy movies can get away with this kind of storyline… sometimes. At the very least, this movie could have done with a bit more action and a bit less of an unfocused narrative. Acting is solid from most of the supporting characters in here with Chris Messina, Matthew Maher, and Sienna Miller being some of the highlights, though the vaunted Director/Star of this just isn’t bringing it to his role the way that he should; especially considering how much of this movie is focused entirely on him.
It’s not a movie without moments of inspiration and engagement, but it’s so spread out across a unbearably sluggish plot that it’s hard to justify sitting through the boring stuff just to get to what’s good. Definitely do not waste your time seeing this in a theater. At home? Eh… maybe. I mean I GUESS you could fast forward to the good parts, but that’s only about half an hour here, and honestly you could be watching one of Ben Affleck’s better movies instead. Hm… Maybe if you splice in scenes from The Town in between the good scenes of this movie…
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