2016 is over, but its films are still letting us down.
“Live by Night” is the fourth directorial effort from Ben Affleck, based on the novel of the same name by Dennis Lehane, and follows a prohibition Boston bootlegger who moves to Florida to corner the rum market. Affleck stars alongside Elle Fanning, Brendan Gleeson, Chris Messina, Sienna Miller, Zoe Saldana and Chris Cooper.
I’m a fan of Ben Affleck and his directorial efforts, and his other two projects from 2016, “Batman v Superman” and “The Accountant,” were both fun films. I also love period pieces, especially gangster flicks, so this was high on my watchlist for a while. And while the film features a star cast and looks incredible, it fails to hold up to Affleck’s previous works.
I’m in the process of reading Dennis Lehane’s “Live by Night” novel, and it only made me more excited for this film. Lehane almost writes in a movie-way, with rich dialogue and ability to create incredible tension, and Affleck (who wrote the script) wisely chose to keep many of the same lines. However Affleck, who is 44, rewrote the main character of Joe Coughlin to fit him, making Joe a World War I veteran instead of a 20-year-old up-and-comer. He also changed various plot points and character developments, with the first two scenes of the film (about 10 minutes) covering what takes the book six chapters to set up. Even not by comparing the film to the novel, relationships feel unnatural and rushed and motivations throughout are suspect at best.
Everyone here does a solid enough job, with every actor (minus Affleck) feeling as if they were properly cast for their role. Chris Cooper has a few good scenes as the “incorruptible” police sheriff, Chris Messina shares a couple fun banter moments with Affleck and Brendan Gleason brings some gravitas to his two scenes as Affleck’s police chief father. Affleck himself feels miscast, both because he feels too old for the type of character he is trying to portray and his constantly smiling, charming demeanor is hard to take seriously as a struggling bootlegger or emotionally-torn gangster.
What honestly saves the film is the production, because the costumes, sets and cinematography are all incredible; honestly, this is one of the best looking films I’ve seen in a long while. 1920s Boston is incredibly detailed and you get the feel of the city; meanwhile Tampa is colorful and features gorgeous shots of the oceanside locations.
The film has its share of fun or exciting moments, and fleeting moments of true greatness, but they are so far, few and in between that all it does is make you wish that everything came together in a final film worthy of its production and cast. The whole thing feels like something Ben Affleck wanted to do and assembled the means of which to make a gangster classic, but his commitment to “Justice League” made him have to rush through it and not be able to give it his full attention.
“Live by Night” looks truly amazing and sometimes that is enough for you to forgive the slacking narrative and disappointing results; this is the type of film that is the very definition of “check it out on DVD.” It has enough to recommend, but nothing that commands you view it as soon as possible, which is an immense disappointment given all it had going for it.
Critics Rating: 5/10