You know, I kinda thought expectations for Live by Night would be pretty high. Ben Affleck’s last film as a director, Argo, won the Academy Award for Best Picture, as well as the top award from BAFTA, the DGA, the Screen Actors’ Guild, numerous Critics Circles—even the César Award for Best Foreign Film! Yet, it arrives in the US with tepid marketing and little fanfare. Curious, as Live by Night returns to the ethical neutral zone and moral quandaries of Gone Baby Gone and The Town.
Affleck plays a WWI vet who turns to crime for a steady income. Unfortunately for him, he falls in love with the paramour of the Big Boston Irish Crime Boss. The Big Boston Italian Crime Boss blackmails him, which ultimately leads to a bloody kerfuffle. Wanting revenge on the BB Irish CB, Affleck teams with the BB Italian CB, agreeing to run his alcohol operation in Tampa. Okay, this is very much a bare-bones, stripped-down synopsis, because there’s an awful lot of narrative in Affleck’s film—enough for two movies, probably.
And that’s Live by Night’s biggest problem: it’s too short. In the 1970s, back when auteurs had more control over their films’ narrative structures and runtimes, a film like this would have sprawled across three hours, allowing the audience to savour the narrative twists and detailed characterisations. That’s not so much a reality anymore. In adapting Dennis Lehane’s novel into a screenplay Affleck seems intent upon keeping most of the plot points, consequently rushing over a lot of them using montages with voiceovers. This gives the whole film, from start to finish, a bit of a rushed and choppy feeling, and it can be difficult in places to keep up with all the narrative events.
But Live by Night’s virtues outweigh its debits. With a cast including Elle Fanning, Sienna Miller, Zoe Saldana, and Brendan Gleeson, there’s scarcely a ten minute block without some lovely character moment that made me smile. My favourite is Chris Cooper as a beleaguered sheriff, weary at the realpolitik keeping him in constant contact with criminals. And there’s Affleck, of course, who here again proves that he’s one of those rare actors who can direct himself effectively. His screen persona has always been a mixture of intelligence, affability, and directness; Affleck knows his limitations as a performer, and plays these strengths quite well.
I’ll be straight with you: Live by Night is Ben Affleck’s weakest film. But, given the other titles in his filmography, you shouldn’t really take that as too much of a complaint. Live by Night is not just for Affleck completists (and I certainly consider myself one of those), but will appeal equally to fans of action, gangster pictures, and historical dramas. The pace of its narrative occasionally annoys, and it’s uneven to be sure, but Live by Night still tells an entertaining story with characters you grow to care for. I, for one, look forward most heartily to Affleck’s next effort.