Right off the bat, full disclosure-I can’t begin to describe to you the premise of this film. Obviously, this is not a good thing in any way.
It’s a shame, because on paper Ben Affleck’s mob epic Live By Night had all the ingredients that could have potentially produced an outstanding piece of art. Mr. Affleck, back behind the camera following successful directorial efforts including 2010’s The Town and 2012’s Oscar-winning Argo, also starred in and adapted the screenplay from a novel by Dennis Lehane, the man who, among other works, wrote the book upon which Argo was based. Furthermore, on a personal level I’ll always appreciate a well-crafted mob film, from more recent classics like 1990’s outstanding Martin Scorsese masterpiece Goodfellas, 1997’s Donnie Brasco & even AMC's docuseries The Making of the Mob, while the 1920s/1930s-era Prohibition setting, also present in 1987’s incredible The Untouchables, just so happens to be one of my favorite historical eras.
So, where exactly did Live By Night go wrong? Nearly every element of this film suffers greatly at one point or another, especially when it comes to the script, which truly can’t decide what type of movie this should be. Gangsters, family issues, betrayal, revenge, bootleggers-all things that could have potentially come together successfully end up working instead on a level reserved for oil & water, burying one another along with components like a soundtrack I believe was present somewhere in the mix but doesn’t stand out in any way. Twists in the "story" fail to pack the punch they should possess, largely due to an overall “story” that fails to build a crescendo as all great movies should. It even has a surprisingly tearful, somewhat out-of-place Road to Perdition-esque ending, one which only adds to the overall confusion of this ridiculous film.
The cast, despite overflowing with promise, is another tremendous letdown, especially considering the talent involved-every individual may be given brief flashes of greatness from time to time, but those moments are fleeting and quickly return said individual to the bland, underwhelming soup they occupy for the reminder of the film. Ben Affleck spends the majority of Live By Night wearing a sullen look on his heavily made up face while sauntering around in ill-fitting period suits, though Chris Messina as his sidekick fares a bit better by bringing some much-needed levity to his character’s lines. Zoe Saldana & Sienna Miller sport less-than-convincing accents and a complete lack of chemistry as Affleck’s lovers, Chris Cooper phones in another gravelly performance as some sort of cop who assists Affleck in his criminal empire, and Elle Fanning as Cooper’s daughter goes from innocent to something reminiscent of Paul Dano in There Will Be Blood, a strange portrayal that teeters somewhere between watchable & wildly overdramatic. Luckily, her eventual transition into that of a broken woman, one that bookends her character’s arc, may very well be one of Live By Night’s better scenes. Furthermore, though small roles are handled by Scott Eastwood, frequent Affleck collaborator Titus Welliver, Clark “It’s Very Difficult For Me To Play A Character That Isn’t Agent Coulson” Gregg & a forgettable appearance by Brendan Gleeson as Affleck’s father, seeing ‘80s icons like Anthony Michael Hall & even Doogie Howser’s buddy Max Casella as an orange-eating greaseball bring about a vision of the casting director throwing darts at a list of has-beens with a maniacal cackle escaping his crusty lips. He too is confused.
That all said, the movie isn’t a complete loss-gunfights are executed well, and the set work/cinematography is phenomenal, nailing the intended atmosphere in a similar manner as 2009’s also-disappointing Public Enemies was able to achieve. However, even these technical components aren’t anywhere close to saving what should have been a home run for Ben Affleck, armed with more credibility, money and studio backing in the wake of the previous successes the man has helmed.
It’s been mentioned that Live By Night could mark the death of the mob film, and I have to wonder if that may be true. As I left the AMC Mayfair on a chilly Monday night in January of 2017, I couldn’t help but immediately feel a complete lack of interest in future output from the genre, along with a sense of sorrow for Affleck following a rough year for the actor kicked off by the widely reviled Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. I have to hope that the remainder of 2017 treats him better, what with the presumably also-Affleck-heavy Justice League in the studio’s pipeline, but if that film suffers from the same script & cast issues as Live By Night, it will naturally be regarded in comparable fashion-forgettable and bad, though to truly use the word bad would be to describe a film I could, at the very least, understand enough to label as such.
In the case of Live By Night, I could not.