Live by Night (2016)

2018 #113
Ben Affleck | 124 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Live by Night

Ben Affleck, once a bit of a laughing stock as an actor thanks to appearing in the likes of Pearl Harbor and Gigli, managed to reinvent himself somewhat as an acclaimed director, first with Gone Baby Gone and The Town, and then cementing that reputation by winning the Best Picture Oscar with Argo. This was what he chose as his next project — another adaptation of a Dennis Lehane novel (like Gone Baby Gone), another story of a Bostonian career criminal (like The Town), another period drama (like Argo… although a wholly different period, so maybe I’m stretching the comparison now). Rather, with its Prohibition-era setting, this was a gangster drama more likely to evoke classics such as The Godfather and Road to Perdition. There was, understandably, awards buzz. Then people saw it… and, it seems, just as quickly forgot it.

I’ve mentioned a lot of other films in that opening paragraph, and you could make endless further gangster-movie comparisons, I think — and that’s a significant part of Live by Night’s problem. Almost everything about it reminds you of something you’ve seen before, often more than once. As a work in itself, it’s not remarkable enough to outshine the familiarities. Some of the plot is quite neat, with an emphasis on cause-and-effect that sees every solution turn into a new problem, and there are some very good individual scenes, though perhaps that’s easy when you’re working with quality actors Chris Cooper.

Equally, some parts are underdeveloped. For example, Affleck gets into a relationship with Zoe Saldana that just seems like a vague sex-based aside, until he’s suddenly declaring that he’s put aside his plans for revenge, his primary motivation, because now everything is about his life with her. I need some more more joins between those dots, please. But at least it sometimes looks very pretty, though if you just want to see that then most of the visual splendour is in the trailer. There’s a surprisingly good car chase, though.

They appear to be living, and it looks like it's nighttime. So that all checks out, then.

Affleck is a decent director, and, actually, a quite like him as an actor too… in the right kind of roles. I’m not sure he’s got the range necessary for this part, however. His character is a conflicted, contradictory man — he genuinely has a good heart, but he’s often prepared to put it aside to do bad things; but, at other times, that moral compass gets the better of him. It’s a tricky line to tread and make believable, and Affleck’s performance is too monotone to convincingly portray it. That leaves the centre of the movie feeling empty, which is a problem however solid the stuff around him is. Apparently the film’s original cut was closer to three hours long and heavier on character stuff, so maybe the nuance disappeared in the editing — or maybe it didn’t. We’ll likely never know.

Live by Night received an exceptionally negative response (just 35% on Rotten Tomatoes), but I can’t see why people hated it so much. It’s not fantastic, floundering somewhat in the shadow of the other gangster movies of which it’s so often reminiscent, but it’s not a bad attempt at the genre. Though, as a significant portion of the storyline takes place in “the sunshine state”, I’m not sure how good that title is. I mean, I live more of my life by night than these gangsters do. I just spend most of that time watching and writing about movies, though — maybe I should be launching a criminal empire?

3 out of 5

4 thoughts on “Live by Night (2016)

  1. I’ve seen this around (on disc etc) and wondered if it was worth watching, as I quite like the genre. Mind, it’s a fools game making gangster flicks, I mean, after stuff like The Godfathers and Once Upon A Time in America and Road to Perdition, what’s the point? Its a bold filmmaker who thinks he has something new to say.

    By the sounds of it, that three-hour cut is the one to watch, although we’ll never see it. Pity, plenty of films get extended cuts that don’t need them, nevermind deserve them.

    I still think Affleck is the best Batman too, albeit criminally wasted.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I suppose it’s all about finding the right material and handling it in the right way. I mean, everyone seems to have high hopes for Scorsese’s next, and that’s a guy who alone has made multiple well-regarded gangster movies, so who knows?

      As much as I did enjoy BvS and, to a lesser extent, Justice League, they didn’t give ‘Batfleck’ the full run he deserved. It’s a shame he gave up on it before a solo movie.

      Like

  2. I really didn’t get the hate either. I remember really enjoying it when I saw it in theaters, it’s no groundbreaking crime story but I thought Affleck hit a few really good beats in it, as both actor and director. I probably should watch it again, the thing I remember most about it was the beautiful cinematography. That might be something of an indictment against the storytelling .

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s definitely a solid, middle-of-the-road genre flick, with some nice flourishes. I think critics / audiences are getting quite harsh on those kind of movies — if it’s not exceptional in some way, it seems like they don’t wanna know.

      Liked by 1 person

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