Live By Night - This Affleck Movie Also-Ran Rocks - Just
Dir: Ben Affleck
Starring Ben Affleck, Sienna Miller, Zoe Saldana, Chris Cooper, Brendan Gleeson, Elle Fanning, Chris Messina, Robert Glennister
Ben Affleck’s trio of directing outings to date have proved hugely impressive, especially the great Gone Baby Gone and the – deservedly – Oscar-winning Argo.
Shame then to announce that his return to Denins Lehane territory has left him a little unstuck. Live By Night has an epic story to tell – Ben’s reluctant gangster’s move from small time in Boston to big time in prohibition era Tampa, complete with lost loves, found loves, mob escalation, exiled Cubans, racism, the KKK, religious extremism and evangelism – even the rise of Hitler somewhere on newsreel in the background. (It could almost be a James Ellroy novel if it had more bite - hell, any bite.)
But Affleck seems uncertain how to make such epic material epic in any way, choosing to focus on the small picture, and indeed often focusing on himself – literally – either displaying a surprising lack of emotion in close up, (mid shot, long shot – every shot!) or having a good time first with Sienna Miller, then Zoe Saldana.
It’s a curious approach but one that, despite all its obvious failings and missed opportunities, manages to involve up to a degree. This is helped in front of the camera by a remarkable cast (even if some of them are under used) with the always reliable Cooper and, especially, a radiant but deeply troubled Fanning to the fore. Behind the camera, DP Robert Richardson renders the movie as handsome as all hell, aided and abetted to perfection by astute production design from Jess Conchor, with cosies, hair and make up all more than pulling their weight for a film that is as good looking as you could hope for.
Dialogue-wise at least too, the script is well up to snuff – Affleck once again adapting Lehane. So it’s strange that what is lacking in Affleck’s fourth outing as director is a strong sense of direction. Certain scenes just pop and are notably powerful; others just meander and make you wonder why Affleck, who has previously shown such tight control as a director, lets his film fall to so much flab. This is typified by the film’s final act in which an excellently staged and kinetic shoot out is undercut by an ending that manages to feel convoluted and rambling both. Cut to another close up of our leading man expressing – well, very little. Maybe it lies in the director/screenwriter’s over reliance on his own voice over – so many of the most interesting events in this story happen in the narration rather than in front of our eyes.
Not a flat-out failure then, but his least successful outing in the director’s chair, and the first time that the man who is up for directing a Batman movie next has made us question his abilities behind the camera.
(That said, rumour has it Affleck has said he’d love to direct a Bond movie. Now that’s something we’d pay to see. Barbara, Michael – are you listening?)
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