In 2013, I was one of the people upset Ben Affleck had been cast as Batman. But my reasons seemed to be in contrast to many of the more, erm, nerdy opinions. I thought Affleck would make a fine enough Batman (and he has, in some very dismal movies so far), but I feared Batman would take Affleck away from his blossoming career as a director – a career that had just seen one of his movies, Argo win Best Picture. Affleck seemed to be one of the few directors with enough pull to make mid-budget original studio drama. And he made them well! But now he’s Batman.
Live by Night, based on Dennis Lehane’s 2012 book is Ben Affleck’s first directorial effort in four years and was announced in 2012 shortly after the release of Argo. Production was repeatedly delayed because of Affleck’s Batman commitments. Now, finally, it’s here. And, maybe not surprisingly, Live By Night feels rushed – missing all the slow burn drama that Affleck showed he was so good at in his prior three films. Live by Night feels like a movie that just needed to be finished, as opposed to being done right. This feels like a high school assignment where it’s obvious an intelligent kid didn’t put the effort into this assignment as much as he or she had in the past. It’s the kind of assignment that gets a, “You are not applying yourself,” written on it next to the “C-“ in the corner. I mean, it’s not easy to direct movies and it’s not easy to anchor a tentpole franchise for a huge studio – one has to give.
At just over two hours, the biggest problem with Live By Night is it’s not near long enough. (I think this is the first time I’ve ever had that complaint.) And I don’t mean this in the sense that when it ended I just wanted more (I did not want more), but that just so much happens in this movie and nothing is given its proper setup so that any of these things merit any kind of emotional currency. Live by Night probably should have been a ten-part HBO series. At the very least, it needed to be an hour longer. Again, just way too much happens.
Live by Night starts in 1920s Boston as former Word War I veteran Joe Coughlin (Affleck) lives a life of crime. Two things go wrong for Joe: He’s sleeping with the head of the Irish mob’s girlfriend, Emma (Sienna Miller); and, after a robbery gone wrong, a police officer is killed. Emma betrays Joe to the Irish mob, but before Joe can be killed, he’s apprehended by the Boston Police Department and spends the next few years in prison.
All of that last paragraph could almost have been a movie in its own. Or, if this were series, that’s a pretty good first episode. Instead, all of that is jam-packed into about 20 minutes. Then Joe packs up and moves to Ybor City, Florida, just outside of Tampa. While there, Joe and his closest confident Dion (played by an almost unrecognizable Chis Messina) meet the local police captain (played by Chris Cooper). Now, I’m setting this up to mention here that Cooper’s character has a daughter, Loretta, played by Elle Fanning. In this scene, we meet her briefly, but she can’t stay because she’s on her way to Los Angeles to become an actor. Great! The only problem is it’s only a few minutes later she shows back up as a born-again, former heroin addict whose goal in life is to make sure Joe can’t build a casino.
So in that short amount of time (for us, the people watching this movie): Loretta leaves for Los Angeles, spends enough time in Los Angeles to become addicted to heroin (and has a lot more adventures revealed as the film goes on), then kicks her heroin addiction, becomes a born-again Christian, then returns to Florida. (See, that could have been its own episode.) The problem here is that we have no emotional stakes in this whatsoever. We are told about all of this, but we don’t see any of it. Actually, we are told about a lot of interesting things in Live by Night that all happen off-screen. We are told about important character deaths off-screen. This would be like in The Godfather Michael telling Sonny, “Oh, yeah, Captain McCluskey, he won’t be a problem anymore. I killed him in the Bronx with a gun I hid in the restroom. How’s your soup?”
Anyway, Live by Night is full of major events happening that have no emotional weight whatsoever because none of it’s given the proper build up. This all culminates in a huge gunfight at the end between a lot of people we barely recognize from earlier in the film. It’s the perfect ending really: an all-out gunfight that has no emotional stakes in a movie that didn’t bother to care about that kind of thing.
I am a fan of the movies Ben Affleck has directed. That’s why Live by Night is such a disappointment. I was actively looking forward to it. And I would have given it any benefit of the doubt, but this movie just isn’t there. It feels like a rushed project that Affleck had to get out of the way before he plays Batman again – which he will do again in next year’s Justice League, then again after that in his next directorial effort, The Batman. So that’s where we’re at: Ben Affleck, the director who had a knack for making original mid-level dramas is now directing a Batman movie while he plays Batman. Anyway, Affleck had a nice run as a director. And when he’s done with Batman, I look forward to what he does. I just fear that’s going to be a very long time.
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