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Categories: Movie Reviews

Ben Affleck fills his latest with terrific performances and impressive direction despite biting off, perhaps, a little more than he could chew.

It’s hard not to judge Live By Night against Ben Affleck’s other work. It’s his second adaptation of a Dennis Lehane novel and continues his four for four streak of films in which he both directs and stars as the principal character.

From the early promise of his first film, and first Lehane adaptation, Gone Baby Gone to his awards sweeping success with Argo it looked like Affleck had escaped a doomed career in celebrity A-listing to become a more unique figure in the film industry. The news of his return to the superhero niche, something that had scuppered his image greatly a decade previously, generated concerns among some and his push further into blockbuster cinema has raised even more due to his apparent desire to continue controlling every major aspect of production personally. Affleck tests his limitations here but rarely, it seems, to the benefit of the film.

Live By Night is generally above average but it can’t shake the appearance of something that’s just test footage for another project. Seeing Affleck take on the responsibilities of lead actor, screenwriter and director, all at the same time, once again isn’t so bad. It’s his time and effort and he seems to be able to spend it quite well. It’s just a little dispiriting to see him try to adopt the Scorsese brand of American gangster story when he’s capable of something more personal.

This isn’t to say that Live By Night doesn’t have its idiosyncrasies but it is a far more sprawling story than Affleck has ever told before and a complex choice for a first attempt. It’s for this reason more than any other that you’ll struggle to regard the film beyond being admirable. One of its most damning flaws is its inability to clearly demonstrate the passage of time in a story that stretches across at least a decade.

It also never finds a smooth reconciliation between fast paced action scenes that are meant to engage the viewer and a desire to be aesthetically anti-climactic.

A majority of key deaths throughout the film take place off-screen while the violence of this very volatile world is mostly impersonal and lacking in any real significance to the story. Numerous subplots throughout the film share the same problem, they’re perfectly engaging at the time but never create the sensation that they’re building towards a cohesive plot.

This being said, the bonus attribute of any actor-turned-director is that they are constantly mindful of performance and Affleck does not disappoint in that respect. Affleck is far too busy reconstructing a bygone era to find time to give himself a showstopping moment to perform but he always makes time to extract the best from the rest of his ensemble. Live By Night contains top level work from Elle Fanning, Chris Cooper and Sienna Miller.

It is absolutely a cut above most gangster films in both execution and sentiment but fatally lacking in a clear sense of direction. It never seems to make up its mind as to whether it wants to be satisfying or unsatisfying. One thing that keeps it well below the Scorsese gangster pictures is a clear absence of not just snappier editing but overall cinematic pedigree. The film clearly has an eye for detail, and not just in period design, but the world too often feels inorganic. Robert Richardson’s cinematography has its moments but, for the most part, it’s as unnoticeable as Harry Gregson-Williams score which frequently sounds like leftover takes from The Town.

Affleck is capable of a lot better and when viewed against the entirety of his career as a director it will no doubt go down as one of his least interesting entries.

Gone Baby Gone was a small-scale but fantastically controlled examination of a specific moral conundrum with wider implications to the human soul. Live By Night is obsessed with probity and power in a burgeoning melting-pot nation but finds no real focal point throughout a story that moves from Europe to America, North to South, while fighting the Irish mob, the Italian mob, the KKK, the church and the law. Its message of reaping and sowing appears neither hopeful nor cautionary, but it is a tad ironic given how little this film has to show for a lot of effort.

Live By Night is out now in cinemas.

Mark Birrell

Mark is the editor of The Spread as well as a freelance copywriter and lifelong cinephile. For writing enquiries, you can email him at mark@cinemajam.com and you can follow him on Twitter @markwbirrell

Posted on Jan 20, 2017

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