By Nick Pinkerton
Live by Night
Dir. Ben Affleck, U.S., Warner Bros.
As a body, the cultural commentariat has done away with the idea of the “guilty pleasure,” and though this is perhaps all for the good, it makes it very difficult to talk about prestige kitsch like Live by Night. It is directed by Ben Affleck, who stars as Irish-American gangster Joe Coughlin, and who films himself filling out 1920s and 30s period fashions, sternly humping Sienna Miller and Zoe Saldana into blind ecstasies, and giving firm-jawed speeches in support of the disenfranchised almost certainly conceived with the delusion of evoking a chorus of “right on”s from a multicultural multiplex audience who will actually be down the hall at Moana. The distance between what Affleck imagines his screen presence to be and what it in fact is constitutes a yawning gorge in Live by Night, and free-falling through this vast, cavernous space you can find a few fleeting moments of giddy pleasure before the final thud.
Live by Night is Affleck’s fourth film as a director, and his second, after 2007’s Gone Baby Gone, adapted from the corpus of Bostonian crime novelist Dennis Lehane, who shares with Affleck a hometown and an affinity for working-class pathos. Lehane is a pedestrian pulper whose books nevertheless offer sturdy narrative scaffolding, on top of which smart, able directors—Clint Eastwood with Mystic River and Martin Scorsese with Shutter Island—have built films touching the superlative. Affleck’s handling of Lehane is, by comparison, that of a dutiful kit-builder, making sure that he keeps all of his pieces in place—an overly conscientious approach that in this case seems to have created trouble between shoot and editing room, for Live by Night comes to us as haphazardly pruned as a topiary sculpture by a blind drunk gardener.
Like Affleck’s Gone Baby Gone and The Town, Live by Night concerns itself with the criminal underworld of greater Boston, though in this case we’re in the heyday of the Volstead Act, when the city is caught up in rum wars between the Irish and Italian mob. When Affleck’s Coughlin is sent down to Tampa to take care of business interests, the ongoing contest between these organized immigrant gangs is relocated into the context of a still larger culture clash, between the WASP landed gentry and the various Papist foreigners. The latter are represented by Coughlin and his Italian and Cuban partners, the former by the cracker sheriff (Chris Cooper), his tent revival-preaching daughter (Elle Fanning), his KKK-affiliated brother-in-law (Chris Sullivan), and a bank manager who actually identifies himself as a representative of the “landed gentry,” which is a step removed from just identifying characters by emblazoning their racial, religious, and class loyalties across their chests, as in political cartoons of the Thomas Nast vintage.
This is how the adapted screenplay, credited to Affleck, tends to bring in the film’s ideas, a collection of corner-cutting clichés and historical generalities made to function in place of plausible characterization or the palpable warp and woof of social fabric, heaped on top of the movie rather than baked in. The character of Coughlin, introduced in mid-bank job, is sketched out not through observable behavior but through explanatory voice-over—the usual stuff about coming home disillusioned from The Great War, which has done the trick in bootlegger sagas from Raoul Walsh’s The Roaring Twenties (1939) to Boardwalk Empire (2010-14). Whatever further detail work is deemed necessary comes from Coughlin’s friends and rivals alike, who are unusually fixated on psychoanalyzing him and offering him spiritual advice. “You spend your life hoping someone will punish you for your sins . . . well, here I am,” muses Irish mob big Albert White after finding Coughlin diddling his girl—it’s a nice plummy, portentous reading by Robert Glenister, though it comes a bit out of left field given that we’ve seen nothing to this point to indicate that Coughlin is a particularly spiritual man afflicted with Catholic guilt. Later we’ll hear Coughlin being told that his “good works are mitigated by [his] evil deeds”—never you mind who says it; everyone in the movie talks like this.
Inasmuch as we’re allowed to observe anything of the forces that shaped Coughlin, it comes in a handful of scenes with his father, an upright Boston police captain, played by Brendan Gleeson. Affleck’s greatest virtue as a director is his attention to casting character parts—the use of Pete Postlethwaite almost singlehandedly justifies the existence of The Town—and along with Gleeson and Glenister we have Italian import Remo Girone as iniquitous Italian capo Maso Pescatore and R&B singer Miguel, brooding through a couple of scenes to uncertain purpose. The announced cast also included Scott Eastwood in the role of Coughlin’s brother, Danny—a character averred to in the film but never seen, which suggests that Live by Night underwent significant cutting down in order to reach its current 129-minute runtime, with the presence of the ubiquitous voiceover seemingly an emergency measure used to frantically stitch up these amputations.
The patient has not survived the operation. It is hard, however, to imagine Live by Night being elevated to greatness by there being loads more of it. Shot by Robert Richardson, the movie has a few memorable frames—a lush, tranquil speedboat ride through the nacreous waters of what is supposed to be Tampa Bay, though in fact the film shot in Brunswick, Georgia—but overall the whole affair is marked by a prosaic dourness that fails entirely to capture the exhilaration of power. (Richardson also shot Shutter Island, and the comparison is not a flattering one.) Reading a line like “We cornered the rum market and lived like kings,” Affleck can barely summon up the enthusiasm of a BU undergrad ordering a round of Fireball shots.
At a time in life when onetime male ingénues are meant to be acquiring the new gravitas of middle age, Affleck’s preposterous inadequacy as a leading man—to some degree the subject of his best roles, in Hollywoodland (2006), To the Wonder (2012), and his ’faced appearance on that Bill Simmons chat show—is only more evident. Despite its a-little-too-fresh-off-the-rack period trappings, its $65 million price tag, and its appearance in the fading afterglow of Affleck’s awards season coronation with his Argo (2012), Live by Night somehow maintains the aura of a sanctimonious, self-serious, and entirely ridiculous little vanity project by a striving wannabe, satisfactorily pulling off practically nothing that it attempts. An outright catastrophe as historical drama, it gets halfway to redeeming itself as camp: reaching for the operatic heights of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972), Affleck’s belly-flop lands nearer to the terrain of lounge act Duke Mitchell’s infamous Massacre Mafia Style (1974)—though Affleck’s antiseptic money pit is nowhere near so lovably, eccentrically handmade. There are a couple good snort-laughs to be had at Live by Night, at least, the loudest when a rival henchman gets chucked over the side of a stairwell and is then strafed with a Thompson submachine gun while ricocheting off every bannister along the way. Perhaps the greatest joy comes in imagining Affleck brooding over his mutilated vision, watching this violent indulgence or the footage of his heatless humping, and thinking “This I have to keep. This ties the movie together. This I can’t compromise.”