By Logan Sowash
It wasn’t until I saw Ben Affleck’s The Town in 2010 that I realized I was a fan of him. Before that film, I had only really known him as “that douchey guy in Mallrats” or the title character in the lackluster Daredevil film from the early 2000’s. Seeing his talent being put to the test, both behind and in front of the camera, made me appreciate how good Affleck really is as a director, screenwriter, producer, and actor. It only got better when his follow-up to The Town, Argo, won Best Picture at the 2013 Academy Awards. However, even the best artists have a misfire or two on their resume. Sadly, Live By Night, while still being an acceptable film, is a misfire when it comes to Affleck as a director, producer, and writer.
Live By Night is a book-to-film adaptation of a 1920’s gangster story that follows Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck), a man from Boston that becomes an outlaw in his hometown after a bad World War 1 experience. However, stepping too far on a gangster’s girl leads him down a path of revenge, glory, love, and crime. In all honesty, it takes from so many classic gangster stories that a lot of its story feels familiar, making the narrative twists and turns very noticeable and easy to predict. That begs the question: Despite the obvious gangster tropes sprinkled throughout the narrative, is it still a good story? In my opinion, yeah. The story is a nice homage to what makes gangster films great. It’s definitely flawed in its approach and pacing but the overall story and writing are really good. At its best, little dialogue moments sprinkled throughout the film remind you as to why Affleck won the Best Writing Oscar for Good Will Hunting.
With the story and writing out of the way, how are the performances? With a great cast, I hoped that the film would be an incredibly enjoyable ensemble piece. The finished product, thankfully, has performances that are well done all across the board. There are definitely characters and actors that are underutilized but what the film offers is an enjoyable cast that tries their best with the material given to them. Ben Affleck is enjoyable (despite his difficulty with keeping an accent), Chris Messina’s Dion is a really funny sidekick, Elle Fanning’s Loretta is tragic yet very well handled, and Sienna Miller’s dedication to her Irish flapper character is admirable. Overall, none of the performances are going to win awards in the near future. That being said though, they are really enjoyable to watch from start to finish.
Moving away from Affleck’s acting, his directing hasn’t lost anything since Argo. He makes late 1920’s/early 1930’s Boston and Florida feel lived-in and authentic. It also helps that Robert Richardson’s cinematography is beautiful, the editing has some great moments, and the sound design is well done, especially when it comes to the shootouts sprinkled throughout the film. This highlights how the film’s major problems truly come from the script because I really didn’t have any problem with the technical aspects of the film.
In the end, Live By Night is Affleck’s first directing misfire. He’s obviously been involved in worse films (this is the SAME Ben Affleck that was in both Gigli and Jersey Girl) but it’s currently the worst film he’s directed so far. Thankfully, that doesn’t necessarily mean the film is bad. The performances, directing, and setting make the film worth seeing at matinee price or as an HBO film months down the road. I just hope that the next film he’s directing, DC’s The Batman, will not follow the recent track record of DC’s superhero films. The last thing I want Affleck to do is to screw up Batman.