18 January 2017

Live by Night review

I'm not angry, I'm just disappointed. Live by Night is the first film for a very long time that I've truly regretted seeing in the cinema, and although that sounds incredibly negative (especially considering some of the dross I've seen in recent years), you have to understand that statement is more due to my own personal feelings about Ben Affleck as a director than it is the quality of the film itself. I've greatly enjoyed all three of the films that Ben Affleck has previously directed, and have been rooting for him for some time now - something that only makes Live by Night all the more saddening, a black mark on an otherwise respectable directing career.

Based on the Dennis Lehane book of the same name, Live by Night tells the story of Bostonian bootlegger Joe Coughlin during the Prohibition era. Following hospitalisation and a three year prison sentence at the hands of Irish gangster Albert White, Joe starts to work for rival Italian Mafia boss Maso Pescatore in order to get his revenge, moving down to Tampa, Florida to run the Mafia's rum empire and coming into conflict with the KKK in the process.

Gone Baby Gone, Affleck's first film as a director, was also based on a book from author Dennis Lehane, but it's safe to say that Live by Night fails to recapture any of the things that made that film such a promising debut. Where Gone Baby Gone was intriguing throughout, Live by Night is directionless and without purpose in a way that prevents you from ever becoming invested in what is happening. Is it a film about a man who can't escape his past sins? A film about someone struggling to hold on to who he is when surrounded by corruption? A film about someone sacrificing his virtue in his thirst for revenge? At one point or another, Live by Night flirts with the idea of being all of these and many more - but ultimately it's none of them, a movie defined by an abundance of plot and subplots, but a fatal lack of actual story.

In fact, Live by Night often feels like a film that's missing a good chunk of runtime, and a number of ill-advised moment-to-moment edits make me wonder just how much control Affleck had over the final cut of the movie. Other than the relatively short runtime (just over two hours), everything about Live by Night points towards the intention to make a new gangster epic, whether that be in the tone, the style, the narration or even the structure of the story - one has to wonder if Live by Night is the latest victim of the now infamous Warner Bros editing room.

And that's a shame given that on every level other than storytelling, Live by Night showcases Affleck's talents behind the camera as well as any of his previous films have. It's a good looking movie throughout, visually inventive with some really beautiful cinematography at times, and as always Affleck is able to wring palpable tension out of his action sequences. On top of that, he gets some really interesting performances out of his supporting cast, which includes Chris Cooper, Sienna Miller, Zoe Saldana and Elle Fanning - admittedly, none of them are playing particularly interesting characters, but they all bring a lot to the table even when there quite clearly wasn't much on the page.

In fact, the only weak link when it comes to performances is Affleck himself, who - oddly enough - seems woefully miscast in his own movie. His natural charm only comes through in all the wrong moments, and the loose, baggy suits he has to wear to hide his Batman physique end up making him look like a child playing dress up in his father's work clothes rather than the powerful, well-respected gangster he's meant to be playing. With a different actor in the lead role, Affleck could have spent more time focusing on how to best tell this story, rather than splitting his attention between acting and directing - here more than anywhere else Live by Night feels like a victim of ego, or at the very least overconfidence off the back of Affleck's (well-deserved) Argo Oscar wins.

All which means that Live by Night is either an example of a filmmaker biting off more than he can chew, or of studio interference yet again getting in the way of a potentially good film, or maybe even both - but either way it isn't good, and ultimately that's the only thing that actually matters. I said earlier that I was rooting for Ben Affleck as a director, and despite Live by Night's failings, I still am - but I really hope that his next non-Batman movie has him stationed firmly behind the camera rather than in front of it, because it's clearer now more than ever that's where he's at his best.

2 stars

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