Film Review: ‘Live By Night’ Has Luscious Looks That Can’t Save Its Numbing Plot

With an impressive trio of films that any working director would be lucky to have on their résumé, Ben Affleck has proven to be a powerful force in Hollywood. Winning an Original Screenplay Oscar for 1997’s masterpiece “Good Will Hunting” with pal Matt Damon, he returned to the ceremony in 2012 for his Best Picture-winning “Argo.” His newest outing “Live By Night,” in which he also stars and adapts the Dennis Lehane novel, is the filmmaker’s first career misfire behind the camera.

Thoroughly ambitious in its technical construction, Affleck has a handle on capturing a time and paying homage to old Hollywood movies, but has very little control of its narrative sensibilities and what keeps an audience invested in a movie. While “Live By Night” is surely stylish, and features a set of terrific performances, it’s deprived of inspiration and misplaced in a year that was full of it.

Live By Night” is a story that is set in the Prohibition Era and centered around a group of individuals and their dealings in the world of organized crime. At the center of it is Joe Coughlin (played by Affleck), whose own moralities are tested by family, friends, and both past and present love interests.

Affleck’s ambitions are on full display. He chases the classics such as “Chinatown” and “L.A. Confidential,” as well as modern-day classics, but comes up short in almost every regard. Characters are sorely underdeveloped, even down to Joe Coughlin himself. Despite being structured as a crime epic, it’s staggering how little we know about Joe, and how little we care. Affleck focuses on nodding towards nostalgia rather than reinventing it. Visually, the film is quite impressive, but on all other fronts, it nearly drags its audience through a muddy swamp that probably sounds more interesting than the toothless tale that was told.

There are quite a few positives to take away. First and foremost, the outstanding and bountiful turn from Chris Messina stands as one of the year’s most undervalued turns. He makes the most of every moment he’s given, while interpreting the sidekick role like nothing we’ve seen over the last few years.

Jess Gonchor‘s vivacious production design in partnership with Jacqueline West‘s fiery costumes place us right in the time. Editor William Goldenberg, who won the Academy Award for “Argo,” makes poor choices in trying to put together a story so that it doesn’t feel like a 12-hour mini-series. The action sequences are well put together, but we have to credit the sound teams for their impeccable work. DP Robert Richardson‘s lighting and lens choices give the film its 1920s-era feel, but if it can’t match an equally inventive script, then there’s little we can get excited about.

All the women in the film feel like they’re from a different movie and stumbled onto the set. Sienna Miller‘s inconsistent accent, littered with her facial expressions that look like she was plucked out of Tim Burton’s “Batman,” have her delivering some of her worst choices to date. A talent is being wasted and we need a more challenging director to save her.

Zoe Saldana is shoehorned, not only in character but in just mere existence in the picture. From inception to exit, it would take a miracle for anyone to repeat her story arc and what she offered in terms of progression and motivation.

Elle Fanning, who just knocks everything she touches out of the park, is solidly invested in her Loretta Figgis, a born again Christian causing a stir. While she has a great exchange with Affleck in one scene in particular, it’s too little too late for us to get wrapped in her luscious words.

The appetite of “Live By Night” is welcomed in any landscape of cinema, but in the wake of many filmmakers and studios raising the conventions of what a movie is these days, the film is simply decades too late. It’s misjudged with unclear villains and a misshapen story. Audiences may mildly enjoy it but quickly forget it by end credits.

“Live By Night” is distributed by Warner Bros. and will be released on Dec. 25 in limited release.

GRADE: (★★)