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Ben Affleck’s LIVE BY NIGHT Misses Most of Its Marks (Review)

Ben Affleck’s LIVE BY NIGHT Misses Most of Its Marks (Review)

 

What Live by Night gets right is its understanding that Affleck has always worked best playing dubious characters, a fact that has held true from his breakthrough role in Mallrats right up to murder-Batman. I remain convinced that The Town would have been a better movie had he and Jeremy Renner switched roles; Affleck’s movie star good looks contrast well with inner darkness.

To the same end, Affleck doesn’t seem to be able to push himself to these dark places when he’s the one directing. It’s part of the classic actor-as-director trap, familiar to the likes of Kevin Costner and Mel Gibson, which also makes it seem like he cannot bear the thought of trimming a single frame of himself from the film.

And while we’re at it, it would help if somebody else had the authority to tell him not to attempt crying scenes and sex scenes if he’s gonna do them like that. It’s not that as an actor he isn’t capable of them; it’s that as a director, he can’t seem to convincingly pull them out of himself.

With his latest directorial effort, Affleck’s goal was to pay homage to old gangster movies, albeit on a modern big-budget and with present-day content restrictions or lack thereof, which is a bit like saying you want to pay tribute the old Universal Monsters movies, but with buckets of gore and CGI. You know, like this.

But while those older movies got by on star power and atmosphere precisely because they didn’t have a ton of money to blow, and while it may be unfair to compare Affleck to icons like Humphrey Bogart or James Cagney, he is at least aspiring to creative and industrial heights. In the film, Affleck plays Joe Coughlin, a WWI veteran-turned-small-time hood who pulls off scams with the help of his girlfriend Emma (Sienna Miller), who also happens to be the mistress of powerful gangster Albert White (Robert Glenister).

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That fact becomes a problem when she helps Joe knock over some of Albert’s establishments. Joe gets beaten and set up, Emma gets “disappeared,” and Joe’s cop father dies while his son is serving time. Anxious for vengeance, Joe agrees to serve Albert’s rival, Italian gangster Maso Pescatore, by taking charge of his rum-running business in Florida. It’s here that the movie starts to feel more like a Godfather tribute than a Cagney one, as the focus on revenge becomes sidelined in favor of empire-building, and maintaining the unsteady peace with corrupt local law enforcement who also have blood ties to the KKK. Here, Joe hooks up with Graciela (Zoe Saldana) a Cuban expat with dreams of revolution and a flair for crime. And that leads to Affleck attempting his O-face on camera. You’re welcome, America.

It may be silly to argue that classic B-material might be a bad fit for prestige treatment. What, after all, are our modern superhero movies if not just that? But if the goal here was really to do classic gangster material, a touch more pulpy thrill and a tighter edit would work wonders. Elle Fanning’s actress-turned-evangelist character is fun, but her whole subplot could have been excised. Yes, it’s all based on a novel, but Affleck has made several changes to make his own character more noble; he could have maybe considered making more still, for a leaner revenge pic that would have all popped just as much as the climactic shootout.

In the end, Live by Night doesn’t know whether to be an Oscar-contending drama or a larger-than-life, old-school shooter. Affleck’s Argo managed to be both by not trying to be; this time, he strained too hard and has rendered his efforts neither fish nor fowl.

Rating: 3 out of 5

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Images: Warner Bros.

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