O, FORTUNA! Your capricious wheel of fate brings us mortals to greatest highs and most miserable lows as we rotate, ever onward, through the spinning machinations of time! And none among us has been raised by generous fortune to loftier highs, then brought to cruelest lows, than that mighty chin among men, the Batman-who-would-be-king, Ben Affleck.
Affleck the Elder’s career carves the insistent, repetitive arc of a pendulum, with the trough accompanying some of the most irredeemable garbage cinema has ever seen. And yet, he ascends—from Gigli to Argo, from Jersey Girl to Gone Girl. We are bearing witness to the uneasy middle period of the Ben Affleck Cycle, on the heels of the brain-bludgeoning Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and whatever the fuck The Accountant was. It is, perhaps, not the most propitious time for Affleck to unveil a sprawling gangster epic—a work in a genre that, in the right hands, can be transcendent, and in the wrong hands, hackneyed and derivative.
Live by Night suggests, however, that Affleck may be on one of his many upswings. It’s a far from perfect movie—I hesitate to even call it a good one—but there’s effort and care and ambition within its muddled narrative. Severely condensed from the middle volume in Dennis Lehane’s three-book gangster series (I have not read Live by Night, but its follow-up, World Gone By, is excellent), the film has all the problems inherent in cramming a 400-page epic into a two-hour runtime. Fortunately, it also hangs on to some of the things that make Lehane a superb writer—namely, a fresh framing of gangster tropes with an eye to historical accuracy, and a tight interweaving of plot and character that give stretches of Affleck’s film real momentum. There are scenes in Live by Night that’re as good as anything I’ve seen on a screen this past year. There are also numerous sequences that are flat-out baffling.
Affleck the actor isn’t the problem. His sleepy eyes and wooden delivery actually work in service of the central character of Joe Coughlin, a stone-faced gangster with an inner moral code. Affleck the director isn’t the problem, either: Live by Night is frequently gorgeous, with deep, grimy browns and blacks characterizing the opening sequences in Boston and lush yellows and purples throughout the main chunk, set in Prohibition-era Tampa. Affleck the director also corrals a ton of great performances from his cast, including Chris Messina as Coughlin’s right-hand man and an amazing, demented turn from Matthew Maher as a member of the Klan who’s causing problems for Coughlin’s operations in Florida. (Criminally underused are Miguel and the great Max Casella, both of whom barely register.)
The problem, most likely, is Affleck the screenwriter, who set himself the impossible task of chopping a book he clearly adores down to a movie of reasonable length. As a result, Live by Night is shaggy as hell, with Coughlin involved in not one but two love stories that are so lazily drawn you’ll be anxiously waiting for the next shootout. Sienna Miller and Zoe Saldana play the two unlucky ladies, and the actresses do what is required of them: in Miller’s case, act vaguely crazy and dangerous (but sexy!) and in Saldana’s, chaste and nurturing (but sexy!). Blech.
Still, for this viewer, Live by Night’s good qualities outweigh the bad. The depiction of Tampa’s Ybor City—and its economy of cigars and crime—is fascinating, even if its multiethnic population is barely depicted. The rest of Live by Night covers familiar gangster-movie territory, but even as it does so, there are welcome hints of a bigger, and better, story.