After three weeks in a four-theater limited release intended to generate excitement but only achieving a tepid indifference, it’s finally going wide! Ben Affleck’s latest vanity picture, Oscar… maybe a pity nomination? Live by Night!
Here’s the thing about the plot of this movie — there isn’t one. It documents several years in the life of Irish World War I veteran-turned mobster Joe Coughlin (Affleck, who also produces, writes, directs and shows the whole world what he thinks passes as an Irish accent). There’s no clear reason for Live by Night to begin or end where it does and no overarching conflict to tie the various parts of his life together. There’s no chain of cause and effect. Things just kind of happen, and they mostly have nothing to do with each other.
Affleck was handed DC’s Batman reboot — they’ve developed a fascinating talent over there for getting mediocre directors and calling them great ones — and he’s been complaining for the past week or so about the media pressure of that project. He’s saying he likes to take his time with scripts, and that Live by Night, for example, he spent a year and a half perfecting before the cameras ever rolled. I can believe that, but only if the goal was to make the movie as awful as possible. This movie’s problems begin and end with its script, and it’s actually impressive how thoroughly bad it is.
In addition to its large-scale structural problems, the characters and dialogue are awful. Coughlin’s partner, Dion Bartolo (Chris Messina), is the only one with any personality to speak of, and the police chief’s daughter, Loretta Figgis (Elle Fanning), is the only one with a consistent motivation. Coughlin’s driving force seems to change from scene to scene, and Affleck plays him so dully you can’t wait for him to leave the screen.
The dialogue is choppy at best. At many points, lines don’t seem to flow one into the other, leaving conversations feeling more like a series of one-off statements, some of which are unintentionally hilarious. Particularly in the movie’s first act, it drops the ball once a minute this way.
If the structural and scene-to-scene problems aren’t enough, Live by Night is also uncomfortably racist and sexist. Affleck writes in racial epithets like he thinks he’s Tarantino, and just when it’s starting to get uncomfortable, the Ku Klux Klan shows up to try and make it better by comparison. Ironically and so, so weirdly, the Klan’s main onscreen representative, Brendan Loomis (Chris Sullivan), is an intentionally offensive caricature in his own right. The film goes from uncomfortably racially aware to traditional, Breakfast at Tiffany’s-style racism. It’s so hell-bent on being racist that it finds a way to treat white nationalists unfairly.
Live by Night is also very traditional with its misogyny. The first act revolves around Coughlin’s affair with Irish mob boss Albert White’s (Robert Glenister) mistress, Emma Gould (Sienna Miller). Gould is essentially a sex object for White and Coughlin to fight over. After a timeskip, Coughlin meets and enters a relationship with Graciella Corrales (Zoe Saldana), who does basically nothing the rest of the movie. She gets a nice tracking butt shot toward the end to emphasize her role as window dressing. Finally, Figgis’ arc is just as uncomfortable. She goes to Los Angeles to become a star — crossover much? — then gets hooked on heroin and raped a whole bunch, then goes Jesus-crazy as a result of her trauma. It’s like a side-dish sampler of sexist character arcs — one is an object for the characters, one is an object for the audience and one is defined entirely by the abuse she endures.
That’s just the problems in the script. The script that Ben Affleck spent a year and a half getting where he wanted it.
Stylistically, Live by Night isn’t barren. There are a lot of noticeably cool shots, particularly in the closing gun fight sequence. The shots are erratic throughout the film, as if being thought up on the spot, even if some of them are nice. This leads to things like the over-elaborate one-shots that only seem to exist to call attention to themselves, admirable but not really serving the story.
Then there’s also Saldana’s butt shot. And extended sex sequences between her and Miller and Affleck, who is more or less their boss on-set. And the extended shot of Figgis being beaten with a switch after her ordeals, because they were somehow her fault. All stylish. All gross.
Live by Night deserves some commendation as a purely visual exercise, but there’s just nothing that can be done to redeem a story with this much wrong with it. Overall, the film comes off like a joke, like Riff Track fodder deserving of mockery at almost every turn. If that’s what you want from a movie but you’re also somehow above Underworld 14, have at it, and try not to get too grossed out.
Leopold Knopp is a professional film critic, licensed massage therapist, syndicated columnist at the Lewisville Texan Journal and journalism student at the University of North Texas. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter @reelentropy, and shoot questions to reelentropy@.