Live By Night is deathly dull


LIVE BY NIGHT (Ben Affleck). 129 minutes. Some subtitles. Opens Friday (January 13). See listing. Rating: N

I’d be willing to bet there’s a three-hour cut of Live By Night sitting on a hard drive somewhere in the Warner Bros. editing department. I’m not sure it’d be any more satisfying than the two-hour cut the studio is releasing, but it would have to make more sense.

This version is a disaster, with Ben Affleck and his co-stars scowling through dull scenes of hard-boiled dialogue broken up by the occasional gunfight. It’s not interesting, it’s not entertaining, and all the men look really uncomfortable in their Prohibition-era wardrobe. It’s 129 minutes long and feels twice that, draining the life out of actors as lively as Chris Messina, Chris Cooper, Brendan Gleeson, Elle Fanning and Zoe Saldana.

Having adapted Dennis Lehane’s Gone Baby Gone for his first feature, Affleck must have thought this would be a cinch. After all, Gone Baby Gone turned out great, with carefully measured performances, an excellent sense of place and Lehane’s signature moral ambiguity acting like a noose around his hero’s neck.

And after demonstrating an evolving technical facility with The Town and Argo, Affleck must have thought an epic Depression-era tale of a Boston thug who becomes king of the Tampa rum-runners would level him up nicely.

Not so much, it turns out.

Some of the damage might have been inflicted in post-production. It’s clear Live By Night has been recut to within an inch of its life its sense of time is murky, relationships jump forward awkwardly, supporting characters appear and disappear for long stretches of the picture (or pop up in montages that were clearly cut down from complete scenes) and Joe’s incessant voice-over feels like a Band-Aid slapped on to cover major surgery.

But it’s equally clear that Affleck is either totally wrong for the role of Joe Coughlin, or doesn’t understand the character in the first place. Joe is a violent thug constantly looking for an excuse to justify his actions, insisting he only hurts people when he has to. (One wonders why he chooses to be a criminal in the first place, but weirdly that never comes up.)

Affleck wants to play Joe as a good guy who does bad things, and consciously or unconsciously he’s structured the film to do Joe’s justifying for him. Of course he has to kill people! They’re Klansmen, or nasty gangsters, or dirty cops, or religious fanatics, or rotten bankers! He doesn’t want to do any of this, he just wants to be left alone to sell his rum – and you know, Prohibition was a bad idea, too. Joe is really just a woke Robin Hood, okay?

Affleck had the same problem on The Town, where he cast himself as a bank robber but had to be sure we understood he was, like, totally the best at what he did but also really conflicted about it. That created a weird blind spot that might not have existed with another actor in the role.

In Live By Night, that blind spot has turned into a cataract that blurs out any life the movie might have had. I think Affleck started the project thinking he was making his Godfather – a grand statement on American corruption set in a world where no one is truly decent – with himself as its Michael Corleone. But what we get barely feels like a movie at all.

Affleck released longer cuts of The Town and Argo, so an extended Blu-ray of Live By Night seems inevitable. I’d be curious to see what went missing, but only as an exercise. This one can’t be saved.



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