Ben Affleck is a good director, but Live by Night throws into question whether or not he’s a good storyteller. Gone Baby Gone is amazing, The Town is solid, and Argo is fun, but Live by Night is his most ambitious film yet. And yet it’s a film that’s all scope and no vision. Affleck paints on a grand canvas that aspires to be in the same league as The Godfather, and yet his film is constantly hamstrung by its lackluster protagonist. It’s baffling that Affleck continues to play the least interesting character in movies he chooses to direct, and yet throughout Live by Night, he’s surrounded by other characters that feel far more deserving of our attention. While the story treads the familiar ground of “How much evil can a man do without losing his soul?” the flashes of brilliance in Live by Night can never overcome its dull lead.
Joe Coughlin (Affleck) returns home from World War I disillusioned and eager to take whatever he wants. He fancies himself an outlaw, and runs heists throughout Boston. However, he also finds himself in love with moll Emma Gould (Sienna Miller), which would be fine except she’s the mistress of Irish mob boss Albert White (Robert Glenister). Eventually their affair is uncovered, Joe survives Albert’s wrath, and ends up in the service of Albert’s main rival, Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone). Maso sends Joe down to Tampa to run his bootlegging operation. Once in Florida, Joe begins to build up a minor empire, but struggles to navigate a moral morass in order to keep his hold on everything he’s built.
Throughout Live by Night Joe encounters more interesting, colorful characters. I wanted to know more about everyone except Joe. I was fascinated by Joe’s father, Thomas (Brendan Gleeson), a cop who toes the line of corruption and trying to protect his criminal son. The same goes for the Tampa sheriff, Figgis (Chris Cooper), who allows criminal activity within certain bounds. There’s also Figgis’ daughter Loretta (Ella Fanning), an aspiring actress turned evangelist. And yet the focus remains on Joe despite Joe lacking much of a focus.
Strangely, Affleck seems to want to play the noble gangster despite using tropes that paint the gangster as an inevitable lost soul. At one point, Joe says that powerful men don’t need to be cruel, and for Affleck, this seems to be the guiding mantra of the character. However, that saps him of an interesting conflict or a tragic arc. Joe needs to be a “good guy” who does bad things, and yet even when he does bad things, the film wants you to know that he feels very, very sorry about them.
This need for Joe to be heroic ultimately cripples the entire picture. It feels like Affleck is bending the morality of the picture to his needs and to paint Joe in a sympathetic light rather than embrace the darkness of the character’s deeds. Live by Night operates under the impression that we need Joe to be likable, when really, we just need him to be compelling. Michael Corleone is a bad guy, but he’s compelling. The same goes for Henry Hill. Affleck has crafted a bizarre character who does dirty deeds but comes out clean, and it just doesn’t work.
And that’s a shame because the film that surrounds him is immaculately crafted. While the action scenes are a bit rough (to the point where I’m a bit dubious about Affleck being able to tackle a big budget superhero film), everything else is stunning. Affleck has master craftspeople like cinematographer Robert Richardson, set decorator Nancy Haigh, and costume designer Jacqueline West operating at the top of their game. Live by Night is a lavish production, and yet its opulence unintentionally reveals its vapidity.
Live by Night, like its protagonist, is handsome, slick, and yet surprisingly bland. While Affleck has continued to hone his craft and improve as a director, eventually he’s going to have to start embracing more complex protagonists if he wants the quality of the storytelling to match the quality of the direction.