Since the movie is without much piquancy, let’s talk about the women. In Live By Night, there are three of them — Sienna Miller (a viper), Zoë Saldana (a sage), and Elle Fanning (a fallen woman). None do much more than push the plot forward. But we can get inside their heads, unlike the dull, listless men whom surround them.
Miller’s character, a gun moll with the face of a goth Jean Harlow and the voice of an impassioned Maureen O’Hara, wants affluence but knows all she has to get her there are her looks and her charisma. Saldana, playing the slinky sibling of a Cuban entrepreneur, is introduced as ambitious but eventually is shackled to boring domesticity. The doe-eyed Fanning goes from aspiring Hollywood starlet to heroin-addicted prostitute, to fanatically religious motivational speaker to down-and-out ne’er-do-well.
When any of these actresses are on screen (though Saldana’s character progressively metamorphoses into a shapeless second fiddle the more she dedicates herself to her spousal duties), Live By Night goes alight. Fanning is just right as the girl — almost a woman — who dreams big but cannot get reality to cooperate. Saldana delivers lines with the perfect cool of a Poverty Row femme fatale to be tamed. Miller, undoubtedly the best thing about a film which forgets to lift off, wins us over with her tempting, vampiric grin and her no-nonsense self-possession, but breaks our hearts the more she submits to her shortcomings.
But Miller is all-important only for the first and last 15 minutes of Live By Night, and likewise are Saldana and Fanning given opportunity to be incendiary all too briefly. Such is disappointingly inevitable, though, in a film starring, written, and directed by an actor/filmmaker who likely couldn’t match a rushed production with the care of a meticulous pre-production. When one has to be a bat every other year or so, there’s no time for a fully formed vanity project.
Live By Night is noticeably the first filmmaking misstep for Ben Affleck, who’s maintained a respectable, perennially Academy-adored writing and directing career since his debut 10 years ago with Gone Baby Gone. But because his last feature, 2012’s Argo, was universally lionized, chances of an underwhelming follow-up were always there.
Since Affleck’s track record characterizes him as director who works best with tight structuring and kitchen-sink stealth, the astronomic — and unrealized — artistic stretches of Live By Night clarify that Affleck is not a chameleonic filmmaker. He can make the intimate sing, but he cannot turn the big into a functioning symphony.
There’s too much to work with, after all; the film is essentially separated into three acts which deal with separate storylines (though one overarching one is to be found amidst the glitzy rubble) and a changing lineup of characters. Our super glue is a soporific protagonist we struggle to care about, his emotions at the bottom of a miles-deep hole and our sympathies as far away as the look in his eyes.
He is Joe Coughlin, and he’s colorless. Initially, we meet him as a Boston-based, circumstantial bootlegger and then a Floridian, morally-conflicted, real-life bad guy. First the film’s set in a grittier rendition of Gatsby’s ‘20s, then George Raft’s ‘30s. But Affleck is a comedown to the dreamy sheen. He can play good guys exceptionally when the material’s right. But he can’t sell this complicated role, especially in the midst of the apparently unending Sadfleck era.
Live By Night weaves in and out of different storylines and concerns itself with a disparate array of people. We cover Coughlin’s romances, with Miller’s Emma Gould and Saldana’s Graciela Corrales, his uneasy professional relationship with Italian Mafia boss Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone), his friendships, with wingman Chris Messina’s Dion Bartolo and fragile, Chris Cooper-portrayed cop Irving Figgis, and his troubles with his father (Brendan Gleeson). The tragedy of Fanning’s character, Loretta Figgis, is a personification of all that haunts him.
But if Affleck’s portrayal is gutless, then the individuals he writes are too. They’re splashes in a gargantuan Jackson Pollack painting with no color. If Live By Night were more epically minded, unafraid of the length necessary to make these characters more than descriptions on a page, the movie could have been the flavorsome Oscar bait Affleck obviously intended. (Consider the film was released on Christmas Day, a recognizable housing period for last-minute award contenders.) And yet Live By Night sits idly, carefully written and acted but so ponderous. And so glamorous and old-fashioned and glossy. But ponderous. C
2 Hrs., 9 Mins.
Live By Night August 15, 2017
ive By Night (2016) is a macho gangster movie featuring too many characters, too many subplots, and too much bloat. It is only interesting when a woman appears on the screen, ready to shake up the self-congratulatory boy’s club that it is. Because what we mostly have is a riff on a sin-driven ‘70s Scorsese ensemble piece, only the characters are types, not individuals, and the atmosphere is cinematic dress-up, not transportive, clear-eyed embodiment.