Past the Popcorn: Affleck’s Live by Night Suffers from Too Many Crooks in Kitchen

by Jeff Walls

Live by Night is a new gangster drama from writer/director Ben Affleck.  The movie is based on a book by Dennis Lehane, who also wrote the book that Affleck turned into his first directorial effort, 2007’s Gone Baby Gone.  The novel Live by Night is not especially long, only 432 pages, but judging from the movie version it packs a lot into those pages.  Unfortunately, that becomes the problem as the movie that feels like it tries too hard to fit every bit of the story into a 128-minute movie.  This results in a movie that feels bloated and inconsistent, while never really settling into any kind of a rhythm.

In addition to writing and directing the movie, Affleck also stars as Joe Coughlin.  He was once a good man, his opening narration tells us, but we are never really shown that good man.  The first time we meet him he is robbing a local mobster’s poker game.  He is also dating the mob boss’ girlfriend on the side, an error in judgment that would have fatal consequences if it were not for the perfect timing of his policeman father. He is sent to prison as an accomplice to the murder of policemen and when he gets out, he is hired by another local mob boss—the rival of the man whose girlfriend he romanced—and sent to Tampa to set up shop down there.

Ben Affleck as Joe Coughlin in Live by NightIn Tampa, Joe hooks up with some Cuban bootleggers and begins a rum empire at the height of prohibition.  This leads to him having trouble with the KKK in addition to rival mobsters.  He also wants to get a gambling business going, but the powerful words of a young preacher woman has turned against him those who might help him fund such a venture.  And whenever something like this goes wrong for Joe, he has to beware of the boss sending someone down to replace him just as he was sent down to replace the previous head of the Tampa organization.

Right from the beginning, the movie seems to get off on the wrong foot.  Affleck’s voiceover narration is awkward and fails to successfully set up his character.  His character is going to be our hero and even though he is an anti-hero, there still needs to be something in the beginning of the movie to make us connect with this guy and want for him to succeed throughout the film, but that does not happen.  Instead we meet a humorless petty criminal whom we are supposed to understand was turned to a life of crime by the horrors he experienced in World War I… without actually seeing the horrors he faced.   He is also a bit of a doofus, not even having enough sense to take the mob boss’ girlfriend to a secluded place as part of their affair, instead having dinner openly in what appears to be the very center of a popular restaurant.  It is no surprise that he gets caught and almost killed.

As an audience, we are then led by this poor protagonist through a movie that seems out of sorts.  At first we are worried about the Irish mob, then the KKK becomes the enemy, followed by the church, before finally having to face off with the Italian mob.  It is a lot to get through and the movie seems to bounce around between each a little too haphazardly.  There are also seemingly crucial scenes that do not feel properly set up.  Chief among these is a reunion that occurs at the end where Joe tells someone about how he struggled for years due to something that happened, only to have the audience scratching their heads as the movie never really showed us this struggle.  For a 1930s era gangster movie, too, the film lacks any real flair in terms of its visuals and production design, with the exception of a few pretty sunsets and one cool dolly in on a bullet hole.

The movie has a great cast, but most only have small roles and those with bigger ones, such as Chris Messina and Sienna Miller, tend to go a little overboard with their performances.  Affleck is at his most dull here, with the exception of two brief moments when a little bit of Chucky from Good Will Hunting sneaks into his performance.  For instance, watch him approach Zoe Saldana’s Graciela to make a move and tell me it does not echo back to the moment in the Harvard bar when he went to hit on Minnie Driver and her friend.  These moments seem totally out of character for Joe, but they were also my favorite Affleck moments in the movie, so maybe his performance could have benefited by going a little bigger, too.

Affleck has had an impressive directing career to date.  His first two movies, Gone Baby Gone and The Town, were both critically well-received and also well-received by fans.  His third film, Argo, took him all the way to the Oscars where the movie won the top prize, even though Affleck himself was ignored in the directing category.  With all this success so early in his career as a director—and a screenwriter, for that matter—it is a bit of a shock that Live by Night never feels like the director had a firm grip on it.  Even the best directors have hiccups in their career, though, and I fully expect Affleck to recover.

Live by Night is now playing at the Century Federal Way, AMC Southcenter 16, and AMC Kent Station 14. Won’t it be nice when Des Moines has its own theater again? Until then, eat local before you go!

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