by ELEANOR MORROW
Live by Night
dir. Ben Affleck
Once you notice one major flaw in a friend, the rest generally come tumbling out. I knew a guy several years ago who made all his girlfriends get the exact same haircut. It was sort of like the haircut that Rachel got on Friends but with a touch of wretched abandon to it. None of the women involved presumably saw pictures of their forebears, and he did the styling himself. That same sort of creepy feeling radiates off Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck).
Besides this fatal flaw, Coughlin is also a murderer and thief. Besides those other two fatal flaws, he is a prince of a fellow. The thing he hates most is racism, and he is always fighting it, even though it is not even World War II yet and most of the people he meets in the progressive paradise of, ahem, Ybor City, Florida, also live very progressive lives.
After his first relationship falls apart, Mr. Coughlin brings two key people into his life. One is Mindy Lahiri’s ex-boyfriend Danny (Chris Messina), who makes Affleck look like a handsome giant in comparison.
Coughlin’s other friend is the Cuban alcohol smuggler who becomes his wife, Graciela (Zoe Saldana). She has the exact same haircut, as I mentioned, of the last woman he was in love with, but I would not spend too much time thinking about what these two people have in common. She is falling all over him with the sex — isn’t Batman attractive? you will hopefully be thinking to yourself.
That is when I began to realize Live by Night was just an extended apologia/rehabilitation created by Affleck to make him look attractive to other women, since whenever the paparazzi insist on taking photos of him he looks more bloated than end-stage Marlon Brando. Ben was clearly disappointed that he looked like Chunk from The Goonies during the lengthy running time of Zack Snyder’s Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice.
In Live by Night, Affleck dresses himself up in these amazing suits that do the service of making him seem svelte by virtue of old fashioned lines and tailoring that diminishes the weight he carries in his hips. The women of Live by Night are also completely hidden by swaths of clothes and fabric, indicating that this must be merely the custom of the time.
Affleck’s character kills a bunch of police officers. He never shows any remorse for what he’s done. Since his father (Brendan Gleeson) is the police captain, he gets off with a very light prison sentence. Coughlin heads right back on the streets looking for revenge on the Irish boss who betrayed him for schtupping his girlfriend (Sienna Miller, whose head is now a perfect circle).
For some reason Coughlin’s plan is to offer his services to the Italian mafia. He asks the Boston-based boss of the family if he has trouble with an Irishman working for him, and the guy is like, no not at all. The important thing to know is that these men may be vicious killers, but they have avoided a far worse fate — being indicted on charges of bigotry or racial preference.
What a world. Coughlin agrees to go to Florida, and Affleck turns Live by Night into a buddy comedy for a bit. Affleck has never had much talent behind or in front of the camera, but sticking to Dennis Lehane’s basic novel means he can get the pacing down all right. He tries to turn every plot he works with into a thriller, which is really not what Live by Night is meant to be. The events themselves aren’t much — the entire program depends on investments in the characters, which Affleck flattens by making them seem like caricatures from other, better mob movies.
Because of his interracial marriage, the local Ku Klux Klan starts going after Joe Coughlin in a major way. He fails as a mobster since he won’t expand his business to the drug trade after Prohibition ends. You see, Joe’s moral compass permits the taking of human life, but not the enjoyment of the same.
Somewhere in here Elle Fanning shows up. Like all the women in Live by Night, she has no actual agency of her own and exists in the plot merely as a functionary whose death serves to propel various events forwards. No woman should probably ever agree to work with Mr. Affleck again based on these results.
Maybe a better performer like Joaquin Phoenix or (producer on this disaster) Leonardo DiCaprio could have carried Live by Night to something close to watchability, but Affleck plays Coughlin as an overserious lug — we never get the sense he is capable of the insight the lugubrious voiceover attributes to him. Moreover, Affleck’s lower body and hands never seem to move at all, meaning Joe Coughlin might as well be a talking head ping-ponging through cinematic space.
Affleck’s worst trait as a director is his prosaic and overly symbolic use of light. The way he puts all the morally dubious characters in darkness, obscuring the actual abilities of the talented performers in this ensemble is extremely distracting and counterproductive to our basic enjoyment of the story. Just go back to The Batman and leave these poor actors alone.
Eleanor Morrow is the senior contributor to This Recording.