Live by Night: Affleck Writes, Directs & Stars in Derivative Gangster Flick
While critical acclaim for his acting has largely evaded Ben Affleck’s up-and-down career, the forty-four year-old has had considerably more success as a writer and director – see Good Will Hunting and, more recently, Argo.
In one of his most ambitious projects to date – one that has seen him write, direct and star – Affleck has dipped into the world of the US’s prohibition era with Live by Night.
Playing a bootlegger who quickly finds himself neck deep in Boston’s underworld, Affleck’s character, Joe, is the son of a Boston police captain who falls in love with Emma – the mistress of a notorious gangster, played by Sienna Miller.
This is where things begin to go awry for Joe, as he finds himself on the run, before diving deeper into the complexities and rivalries of 20’s gangs, including the Klu Klux Klan. The film spans several years and reads like a sweeping gangster epic on the same level as The Godfather and Goodfellas in sheer scale as we follow Joe and his rise. But herein lays the problem; in trying to match these seminal gangster films, Live by Night relies on one too many derivative elements, while failing to give its narrative weight of its own. Not unlike Michael Corleone of The Godfather, Joe is presented as a good man – he’s also a war veteran – who finds himself in a world that’s not his own, for example. The film touches on all the narrative beats in exposing you to the gradual transformation of the main character, but without any unique narrative elements or even subplots.
Even a stellar casts that features the likes of Elle Fanning, Brendan Gleeson, Chris Messina, Sienna Miller, Zoe Saldana and Chris Cooper can’t quite raise the film above an amiable gangster flick.
On the plus side, Affleck has infused the film with an apt swagger and style, but its grand and detailed aesthetic doesn’t pave over the cracks of what seems like a rushed piece – in spanning several years in the story of Joe and co., the film glides over potentially relevant and critical scenes and periods in its tight 129 minute running time.
Following the success of Argo, Affleck had, in many eyes, unveiled a talent for bringing a story to life – which makes the overall sum of Live by Night all the more deflating.