By Christian DiMartino
2016 wasn’t the best year for Ben Affleck…
…well, for me that is.
Both Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice and The Accountant were fairly successful financially, and there is a crowd for both films. But I was not a part of that crowd. I found both films to be rather messy, despite their moments.
Now comes Live by Night, Affleck’s directorial followup to the Best Picture winning Argo. Here I was, sitting through Live by Night, thinking: Does this thing actually work? The answer: sometimes. But like those two films, it once again is a mess. This mess being at the hands of Affleck himself.
Affleck is a talented filmmaker. You sense and smell his talent within Live by Night, but yet as a film, it never really… well, LIVES. I scratched my head a lot of the time, just wondering how it all adds up. But in the end, Live by Night cluttered and uneven. Oh, but what a gorgeous mess. I’ll get to that later.
The film is based on a novel by the great Denis Lehane (Mystic River, Shutter Island), a novel I haven’t read, but guarantee its better. Set in the Depression era, Affleck plays Joe, a guy who, after the war, begins a life of crime. However, certain circumstances send Joe’s ass to jail, and when he gets out, he decides that he wants to shape his life up, and become a better man. In these early scenes, we sense that Affleck is onto something. Affleck’s performance is just fine, though his accent can be a tad distracting. He occasionally has trouble figuring out just what accent he wants.
This attempt at reinvention lasts for, hmm, I don’t know, three minutes? And before you know it, Joe is off to Florida for a job. There he reunites with Dion (Chris Messina), his old crime buddy, and soon they’re off doing… something. Something to do with a casino, I think. You see, part of the problem with Live by Night is that it never fully develops its ideas of Joe redeeming itself. It’s a thought for an instant, and then the rest focuses on Joe’s life of crime.
We have Sienna Miller and Zoe Saldana show up as women in his life. Chis Cooper plays a politician, and Elle Fanning plays his daughter, who after a heroin stint has some sort of weird religious awakening. Brendan Gleeson shows up near the beginning, but you wish he were in it more. The rest can be said for a lot of this cast, but when they’re in it, they’re just fine.
Live by Night, to put it simply, is a film of moments. Ultimately though, it feels more like a blue print for a great film. Affleck certainly has a vision. And what a beautiful vision it is. Gorgeously filmed by the legendary Robert Richardson (Hugo, Quentin Tarantino’s later work), with great production values overall, Affleck, as he captured the 70s with Argo, has a keen eye when it comes to the feeling and look of this era. He also knows how to stage an action sequence.
It’s not that the directing is weak. But rather, it just can’t quite make up what it’s about. What he can’t quite pull off is juggling all of this material. The film can occasionally feel like six films morphed into one, with a boatload of names tossed out, and a bunch of somewhat random ideas thrown in to spice things up (KKK anyone?). In fact, there is so much going on, you may even forget what the central story is.
I admired some of what Affleck did here, and while I was watching it, I kept trying to convince myself that the film he’d made actually does work. But as I said, it’s a film of moments. Moments that didn’t necessarily add up to a cohesive whole, but moments that stick out. Live by Night is a bumpy ride. It begins well, then stumbles, then picks up, and occasionally doesn’t quite know what to do with itself.
Affleck has directed better films, and will again. But not quite here.