"Live By Night" Marks Ben Affleck's First Directorial Disappointment

It’s been four years since Ben Affleck directed “Argo.” It feels like a hundred. In the wake of the political thriller winning Best Picture at the 85th Academy Awards, capping off its director’s about-face from beleaguered movie star to Hollywood golden boy, the writer turned actor turned director has suffered something of a regression. There was the worthy “Gone Girl,” but then there was “Runner Runner” and “Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice” and, most recently, “The Accountant.” Now his directorial follow-up to “Argo” is here and his acting travails have seemingly become contagious. “Live By Night” is undoubtedly the worst of the four films he’s helmed; it barely puts up a fight.

There are small pleasures in this adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s prohibition-era gangster novel. Robert Richardson’s sumptuous photography is nearly reason enough to check in, melding with Jess Gonchor’s sleek production design to punctuate the film’s cartoonish violence with the visual kick it requires. Affleck has delivered a very, very good-looking film. It’s only too bad the visuals have enabled the film’s trailers to peddle the intoxicating gangster epic the director didn’t make.

The multi-talented Bostonian stars as Joe Coughlin, World War I veteran and wayward son of Boston police captain Thomas Coughlin (Brendan Gleeson). Joe is madly in love with a woman named Emma (Sienna Miller) and she with him, except she’s the mistress of a prominent Irish gangster. An Italian mob boss uses knowledge of the dalliance in an attempt to blackmail Joe, who in turn refuses and plans to rob a bank and sweep Emma off to California, away from their life of crime. Complications inevitably arise.

A vehicular chase follows the robbery and a few cops are killed. Emma goes missing, presumably drowned in an icy river. Joe’s father gets his son a relatively light prison sentence: three years. Thus ends the reasonably diverting first act of “Live By Night,” anchored by a surprisingly delightful performance from Sienna Miller. We’re onto act II, where the wheels fall off.

Joe gets out of prison, his father recently deceased, and reconnects with partner Dion Bartolo (Chris Messina) to enact a long, arching plot for revenge that the film has no interest in making any sense out of. Joe and Dion head south to Tampa, where they’ll become rum runners and battle the Ku Klux Klan and construct a half-assed criminal empire ostensibly to assuage their boredom. This is dotted with capable actors given little (Chris Cooper) or nothing (Zoe Saldana) to do, presumably in the name of propping up a visibly uninterested Ben Affleck, the actor.

Cooper’s Sheriff Irving Figgis and Saldana’s Graciela Corrales are only noteworthy as being clumsily intertwined in service of the picture’s shrug-worthy denouement. Nothing building up to it – not the slack, mean-spirited subplot about Figgis’ drug addict turned evangelist daughter (Elle Fanning) or Corrales’ perfunctory role as Joe’s Florida squeeze – gives us a single reason to care about either of them. So when they feature in the movie’s climactic moment, we can’t help but wonder why we’re supposed to care. Matthew Maher’s extra-malevolent white supremacist character is far more compelling than either, the only supporting player in the film’s back half that stirs any intrigue at all. And he’s only a third-tier villain.

The film’s only other memorable villain: Ben Affleck, the writer. The screenplay sees him bite off several mouthfuls more than he can chew, supplementing willy-nilly storytelling with monotone narration that does little to assuage the feeling of nonchalance. In fact, the movie feels by turns too long and too short, coming in at apparently the only length (129 minutes) it mustn’t be.

Affleck has the talent and the cachet to make just about any movie he wants to make. The result shouldn’t be a herky-jerky crime saga that never commits to the scale of the story it’s telling. All the visual flair in the world wouldn’t be a stout enough chaser for such soured, lumpy storytelling; for such an indifferent lead performance. A little more Sienna Miller and a few more action scenes might have rescued “Live By Night” from itself. As is, it’s a crossroads for every version of Ben Affleck: writer, actor, and director; a career up in the air.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Mediocre)

Release Date: December 25, 2016 (Limited)
Studio: Warner Bros. Picture
Director: Ben Affleck
Screenwriter: Ben Affleck
Starring: Ben Affleck, Brendan Gleeson, Chris Messina, Sienna Miller, Zoe Saldana, Elle Fanning Chris Cooper, Matthew Maher, Miguel
MPAA Rating: R (for strong violence, language throughout, and some sexuality/nudity)