Director: Ben Affleck
Cast: Ben Affleck, Zoe Saldana, Chris Messina, Chris Cooper, Brendan Gleeson, Elle Fanning, Sienna Miller
Running time: 128 minutes
Release date: January 13th
Some people just don’t look right in a hat. Ben Affleck, he of tall muscular frame and chiselled jawline, appears surprisingly awkward beneath many a trilby as the vainglorious Live By Night stretches out like an old cat in need of slumber.
Affleck has scored big points from the director’s chair with both tense, gritty affairs (Gone Baby Gone, The Town) and the Hollywood-revering, crowd-pleasing pressure cooker that was Argo but his fourth effort as an auteur finds him wearing one too many stylish headpieces, as it were. As director, star and writer – adapting Dennis Lehane’s novel of the same name – he turns Live By Night into a full-on Vinny Chase production to the point where you expect him to wryly announce that he is Queens Boulevard before we cut to black.
Alas, Live By Night has a significantly more eye-rolling ‘oh for fuck sake, really?’ denouement and it’s quite the chore in order to get there. Affleck has always been attracted to what he presumably sees when he looks into the mirror; tough Boston guys with a complicated moral code but a heart of gold beating underneath it all. And so his World War I veteran turned low-level criminal Joe Coughlin informs us as part of a clunky hand-holding narration of his “outlaw” status; the first real signifier of a character who emerges as a dour contradiction over the course of the film.
Much is made of Coughlin’s reluctance and flat-out unwillingness to take another man’s life ever again. He actively avoids such permanent solutions to his mounting problems as he’s caught in the crossfire of a mob war and betrayal, seemingly sticking to his figurative guns as the deck is continually stacked against him. It’s the kind of intriguing arc that can and will only end one way, and therein lies a payoff even if you know it’s coming. So what the hell is with the scene where Coughlin prompts his right-hand man — Chris Messina, saddled with a bad moustache in a role where he’s neither the stereotypical psycho best friend or well-sketched enough to emerge as a likeable hoodlum – to empty a pistol into an enemy as a punchline? Coughlin’s rise to and struggles with power are regularly peppered by a cast of cartoons that flirt with high farce as the humdrum stakes continue to raise for our ‘hero’.
Agency is in short supply for anybody not first name on the call sheet. Zoe Saldana arrives with a spark that is quickly extinguished as she is relegated to ornate set dressing. Elle Fanning, meanwhile, is arguably the film’s greatest missed opportunity, flitting from potentially compelling surprise antagonist to a rather hackneyed plot device. Brendan Gleeson and Chris Cooper bring their usual easy gravitas though both are hampered by either brief screen time or ludicrous plot machinations. Speaking of the absurd, Sienna Miller’s ostentatious Oirish accent is an all-timer.
Live By Night is in thrall to its leading man both on and off-screen, to wildly detrimental effect. Perfunctory source material is admittedly of little benefit but it takes real work to create a vanity project so dull and lifeless. Between this dud and misadventures in the name of caped crusading, the anointed son of Warner Bros. could use another improbable comeback victory. Heavy lies the crown.