It’d be so much easier to understand Live by Night if it were Ben Affleck’s first film. Vain, ill-conceived and full of baffling story missteps, it has first-movie written all over it. But this is Affleck’s fourth time out. Leading up to Live by Night, he’s given us a nearly great moral drama, a cool pulpy crime film and a Best Picture winner. Live by Night is none of those things. I’m really not sure what it is.
It’s hard to know where to start with this film. Do I start a general synopsis where it begins or jump forty minutes ahead to where the film finally decides to settle down and tell a story? There’s an entire plot with Brendan Gleeson you’ll forget even happened by the time the film ends.
The film’s too unwieldy to summarize anyway. Affleck clearly set out to make a mobster epic. Instead he just made a film that’s long and spans a whole bunch of years. Any arc Affleck’s character might travel is nullified by his ever-shifting personality. At one point a character asks him “who are you, really?” and I honestly couldn’t tell if it was lampshading or not.
Affleck starts the film as a soldier. Due to War’s Hell (we’re told via voice-over and pictures of random soldiers who are not Ben Affleck), he decides he’ll never take orders again. So he becomes a lowly bandit of sorts. Except he’s not very smart. We know this because he’s dating a big mob boss’ lady. Not on the side, either. He’s taking her to fancy restaurants and making out with her in front of the whole world. He gets offered a big mobster opportunity but refuses on grounds that he never wants to be a mobster. Then he goes to jail for three years, comes out, and decides he’ll be a big mobster after all. He doesn’t ever climb the ranks; they just make him Rum King of prohibition Florida, sight-unseen.
This is where we spend most of the film, watching the now very business savvy Affleck build a rum empire. Actually, he builds it offscreen. But we watch him protect or try to protect and also sometimes not at all try to protect his rum business from a variety of adversaries such as the KKK, religious fanatics and his own mob pals. He also suddenly develops a streak of social activism and a sense of humor.
There are occasional sparks of a good movie here. Affleck vs. the KKK has a lot of potential but runs out of gas way too soon. A big shootout near one of the film’s endings looks great. When the film actually concentrates on a single idea, you almost get locked into a movie worth watching. But Live by Night just can’t sit still long enough.
If I didn’t know better, I’d think the director were trying to sabotage Ben Affleck as an actor. He’s way too old for the role, constantly clad in giant, unflattering suits and marred by a weird makeup technique that makes him look like he just got done crying. When his signature charm comes into play it’s often tonally misapplied.
He’s good in scenes where he gets to be angry, but those scenes tend to have their own problems. When a company refuses to invest in his big casino for PR reasons, for instance, he gives a great, impassioned speech about how white corporate fat cats are just legally-sanctioned gangsters, but worse due to the way they treat minorities and common people. But, you know, he’s trying to build a casino, not exactly a homeless shelter.
There’s more. No actress could redeem the character Elle Fanning plays, but her strange performance certainly doesn’t do it any favors. Actually, the film has three female characters, and none of them are putting this in their demo reel. There’s a bizarre diner scene with Matthew Maher’s white supremacist character that defies description. Maybe the best personification of this film is when it introduces its very own little orange-sucking Joe Pesci in the form of Doogie Howser’s Max Casella, just out of nowhere, and then pockets him for an hour.
The whole thing is a big mess. And it’s too bad because I like Ben Affleck, as both a director and an actor. It’s hard to know how these things go wrong sometimes, but from its opening moments Live by Night is just irredeemably lost at sea, and no amount of fancy hats, pretty molls and gangster violence can save it.