“We don’t get to pick our sins”
A scene happens early on in Live by Night where Deputy Police Captain Thomas Coughlin (Brendan Gleeson) tells his criminal son Joe (Ben Affleck) that our actions always add up to a conclusion for which we can never predict. The idea is that Joe is a good man—a war veteran with a good heart—who’s simply been disillusioned. Thomas is willing to not crackdown on him despite being fully aware of how his boy makes a living as long as the evidence doesn’t force his hand. He loves his child. He protects him and tries to reach whatever goodness still lies beneath his outlaw exterior with this prophetic warning. If you play with fire, you will get burned. And Joe is definitely not exempt from fate.
What’s interesting, however, is that he gets burned in the first twenty minutes. This common “never going to take orders again” thief ducks the Irish (led by Robert Glenister‘s Albert White) and Italian (led by Remo Girone‘s Maso Pescatore) mobs because he rejects the gangster label, deciding instead to rob them and put his utility onto their radar. Joe’s ego for too big to think he’ll fall. He has a limited “get out of jail free” card with Dad, a loyal friend/accomplice in Dion (Chris Messina), and a loving girlfriend in Emma (Sienna Miller)—what more could he want? The answer is nothing. If not for the fact that Emma is also White’s girlfriend, Joe would continue the grind and maybe catch a bullet. He’s not so lucky.
Instead tragedy falls, a thirst for revenge is created, and Joe gets into bed with Maso to make it all happen. Besides the colorful Prohibition-era cars and Dick Tracy hats helping a very stagey aesthetic ruin some of my suspension of disbelief (some actors turn to say their lines as though Affleck the director whispered in-screen, “It’s your turn”), Live by Night sets up a rousing gangster tale ready for explosive fireworks. But despite the fact that those fireworks will eventually arrive, it takes a really long time for the fuse to ignite. So long that we forget about the desire for revenge on White completely as the Ku Klux Klan, a teenage preacher, and Maso’s dimwitted heir (Max Casella‘s Digger) enter the fray to distract Joe’s attention.
Add a new love interest in Zoë Saldana‘s Graciela Suarez mixing business and pleasure—crime and charity—and Joe Coughlin could again continue the grind and maybe catch a bullet, albeit with a much nicer house thanks to a booming gig smuggling rum north to Maso in Boston from his current Tampa locale. So do we patiently wait for White to resurface? Do we bask in the moral struggle and business acumen of a street thug turning crueler by the minute as the stakes rise? Or should we merely enjoy the period-specific art direction and imagine what it was like to be an immigrant in 1930s America as Joe delivers a monologue way too pointed to not be an intentional commentary on our current political state?
Sadly Affleck the writer never picks one. Nor does he do any enough justice to hold our interest simultaneously. Instead we latch onto one, grow frustrated when it isn’t being addressed, and roll our eyes when it comes back to serve overly melodramatic sentiments. This is a real shame because novelist Dennis Lehane‘s name generally brings with it a lot of promise. He wrote Live by Night in 2012 and it easily found its way to Affleck’s desk considering he also adapted the author’s Gone Baby Gone (to me Ben’s greatest achievement and best Lehane film). The difference is that Affleck had help before: Aaron Stockard on Gone, Stockard and Peter Craig on The Town. I wonder if he simply bit off more than he could chew here.
One of two things needed to happen in my mind. Affleck could have cut another twenty to thirty minutes (I say “another” because Titus Welliver supposedly is in this, but unless I’m blind he wasn’t) to trim the bloat from Act Two that makes the whole too episodic to feasibly hope we still care about why Joe is in Tampa once the plot remembers we should. Or he could have added twenty to thirty minutes to flesh out motivations and give subplots room to not just serve the drama in staccato bursts of violence or emotion. A lot does work—and after reading the novel’s synopsis, much of it is a credit to Affleck’s tweaking—but the journey is so convoluted that it’s hard not to be bored.
And that’s despite a weird strain of humor trying to entertain us with bickering about who shot who, Casella’s orange chomping stereotype recalling Brian De Palma‘s campy Scarface (as much of the Florida section does), and the inspired yet distracting casting of Matthew Maher as a psychopathic KKK imbecile. Affleck’s Joe actually bursts out laughing more than once as though even he can’t believe what’s happening—like Ben forgot certain bits were in the script and genuinely found that they tickled his funny bone. This tonal incongruity is glaring and the contrivances bringing things full circle despite his Boston tragedies being a distant memory are hard to swallow. Affleck meticulously places pieces on the board for a game we forgot we were playing, pawns each and every one.
Thankfully the inevitable big blowout is handled with some flair to wake us up before one last non-surprise. Affleck’s performance is a bit stiff when acting tough during it (which works considering Joe’s a softy at heart), but his warmth and compassionate otherwise is pure. Elle Fanning‘s casting is a red herring, her role a secondary plot point forcing machinations out of her control; Gleeson and Chris Cooper show their immense talents despite small roles; and Miller and Saldana add nice strength and individuality to what are generic love interest roles. My favorite part of the whole actually ends up being Messina and his fake teeth and potbelly. His grasp on switching from comedy to drama is the most natural of the bunch—an adjective very little else earns.
Rating: R | Runtime: 128 minutes | Release Date: December 25th, 2016 (USA)
Studio: Warner Bros.
Director(s): Ben Affleck
Writer(s): Ben Affleck / Dennis Lehane (novel)