Ben Affleck’s really weird gangster film is a dud.
“What. Is. Happening?!?”
While watching Live by Night, I turned to the person next to me and asked this question several times. She was equally perplexed. It’s not that the film is hard to follow, it’s just that writer-director-star Ben Affleck took the “everything and the kitchen sink” approach to telling the two-hour-plus story of fictional mobster Joe Coughlin, and it didn’t work. Which is quite a monumental failure considering the cast includes Zoe Saldana, Sienna Miller, Chris Cooper, Elle Fanning and Brendan Gleeson, among other top-notch talent; the screenplay was based on an award-winning novel by bestselling author Dennis Lehane (Gone Baby Gone, Shutter Island, Mystic River); and the action spans several tumultuous years in U.S. history.
When we first meet WWI vet Coughlin (Affleck) in Prohibition-era Boston, he’s a not a full-blown gangster just yet, but he is the mastermind behind several high-profile robberies and has fallen for an Irish mob boss’s girlfriend, Emma (Sienna Miller). The two lovebirds decide to escape Boston so that they can be together. However, at the end of one of many unmemorable shoot-‘em-up sequences, it appears that Emma didn’t make it. So Coughlin heads south to Florida with a new plan that involves building an empire that will eventually help him to take down the mobster he blames for Emma’s death.
OK, so… in between all of that? Coughlin gets a new lady love, local Cuban businesswoman Graciella (Zoe Saldana). Prohibition ends. Coughlin and Graciella join forces and not only rule over a successful rum operation, but also run several hoppin’ clubs. I had found the film to be tediously paced and boring up until this point. Then all of a sudden, Coughlin steps out of one of his clubs to find burning crosses and Klansmen. What? This twist came out of nowhere, which isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, except that so many more left-turns were to follow that it started to feel like Affleck was so overwhelmed by translating Lehane’s novel for the big screen that he just decided to throw in all of “what happens” in the book without figuring out how to make us care about any of it.
By the halfway point in the film, we already had the Irish mob, the Italian mob, an illicit affair, car chases, shoot-outs, some major deaths, Prohibition ending, drugs, booze, the KKK… and then we get a crooked Sherriff, more racists, teenage prostitution in Hollywood, blackmail, fundamentalist rallies, gambling, more shootouts, two Not Entirely Unexpected Twists and more deaths. All of this while Coughlin wears some of the most ill-fitting suits I’ve ever seen. I could not get past how badly Affleck’s character dressed because it seemed so against type. How is anyone supposed to take him seriously in gaudy, baggy suits?
A film’s worst crime is when it doesn’t make you feel anything. Live by Night was shot beautifully, but there was no depth to Coughlin’s story, no emotion, no tension, no suspense, and no intrigue. While the rest of the cast at least made an effort with their performances—with Saldana’s slinky seductress and Fanning’s shrewd priestess being standouts—it wasn’t enough to overcome Affleck as both an actor and director just going through the motions. There was one excellent (positive) line Coughlin has about immigrants that I thought reflected some of the tension this country is experiencing in the present day (a few people in my theater quietly cheered), but even that solid piece of dialogue was delivered woodenly and emotionlessly. Affleck has never exactly been the most dynamic actor in my opinion, but in the other films he’s both directed and starred in—The Town and the Oscar-winning Argo—he knew how to pace the action, build suspense and make you care about what happened. Let’s hope Live by Night is just a one-off misstep in his directing career.
The Bottom-Line? Despite its excellent cast, Live By Night is a snoozer that has nothing new to say and isn’t worth your time.
Cast: Ben Affleck (Joe Coughlin), Sienna Miller (Emma), Zoe Saldana (Graciella), Chris Cooper (Chief Figgis), Elle Fanning (Loretta Figgis), Brendan Gleeson (Thomas Coughlin)
Credits: Directed by Ben Affleck; written by Ben Affleck, based on the novel by Dennis Lehane
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Run Time: 2 hours 8 minutes
Erika Olson © January 13, 2017