Live by Night, written and directed by Ben Affleck, is a film that somehow manages to achieve nothing of merit or note in its 2 hour-long span. Not in some time have I found myself so disinterested in a film; from set-up, to execution, everything in this film feels rushed and lacking in anything that warrants remembering. This review will probably not be the kindest, in terms if my criticism of, Live by Night, but it has to be said, unfortunately.
The films story revolves around Joe Coughlin – played by Ben Affleck – who after getting tangled up with the wrong people, ends up working for an Italian mobster. Coughlin is sent down to Florida to start getting the business back up and running, while also being given the opportunity to get revenge on the man who wronged him. But enemies start coming from all sides, and he must protect the people he cares about, while also trying to keep the scrupulous business on track.
Throughout my time with Live by Night, there was one question that I was continually asking myself – a question you really shouldn’t be asking after a certain point. Who is Joe Coughlin and why do I care about him? The film never answered that question. After 2 hours and 9 minutes, Joe Coughlin is still a mystery to me. I in no way felt I ever got a proper grasp of who the man was, or what was really motivating him. I had to continually remind myself as to what the reason was that he was there in Florida, and doing all the things he was doing. The film really does fail to set-up his reason for doing what he’s doing, and then it also fails to even remember itself. When it did come time for Coughlin to get his big moment; the moment where he would get to face the man who had wronged him, both I and the film didn’t care. It’s just glossed over it and then we both just moveed on – which really does play into negating so much of the films purpose (which is something many aspects of the film seem eager to also do).
I don’t feel it helped that, Ben Affleck was also absent for the majority of the film. No, he isn’t actually in a smaller role in the film, what I mean is that he didn’t ever feel the need to emote in the film, or bring any sort of life or character, to the character he was playing. He forever felt distant in the film, like his mind was somewhere else (probably the directing chair) and the performance he was then giving was so removed from everything else. Not only was the character that he was playing someone who had no definable characteristics or personality, but his performance is one that is completely lacking in basic human believability.
It’s a shame, because I like Ben Affleck and I think he is absolutely capable of delivering on a good performance in a film. But here, in Live by Night, there is a very noticeable absence from him and subsequently his character. I feel the film would have really benefited from Affleck focusing his attention to being solely behind the camera, building out this film – I can see hints throughout of his overall plan for the film; it’s just that none of it is ever executed in a way that makes it work. Having him behind the camera would have also given another actor the chance to come in and really build out the films main protagonist; make him into someone you not only know (cause that’s kind of necessary) but then also someone who feels like a person that you want to latch onto and become a part of their journey through the film. Instead I was struggling to keep my attention on the film, and by the end, had lost all effort to care about Joe Coughlin and his story.
I mean, the film sets up things that you think would be big factors in, Coughlin’s story. We learn in the beginning that he was a soldier in World War 1. Now you’d expect that to perhaps play into the personality of the man – nope. We never see any hint that that was ever something he did in his life – it’s as if it never happened. Something else in the film that would have been really interesting to explore is that Joe’s dad, Thomas Coughlin – played by Brendan Gleeson – is actually a well-respected police officer (one who is pretty high up, rank wise). Wouldn’t it be interesting to explore a father, son dynamic where one is a criminal and the other is a police officer? Well don’t look to this film to do it, because it glosses over it so fast, that if you blink you might miss it. It’s oversights like this that overtime, really harm the investment level or the interest of the audience. By not giving us characters to care about or stories to peak our interest… well then what do we have to latch onto?
Speaking of story: Oh boy, is that a messed up, convoluted disaster. Live by Night starts fast and its entire first act is unrelenting in its attempts to overload you with expository information. It gives you no time to settle in and learn the inner workings of its world, or who Joe Coughlin is. Before you can even get a proper sense of everything, the first act is wrapping up and ramping up into some big, explosive crescendo. The first act to Live by Night, genuinely feels like the final act to any other gangster film. It left me confused, lost and concerned for what was to come.
And unfortunately, Live by Night never gets itself back on track. The film continues with its break neck pace, and the issues that came up before, come up again, except this time the films in a new location. So what that meant, was that the film was going to rattle off a few new characters, give us no clear idea as to who they were, and then move on into some plot lines that were context-less and ultimately wrapped up before you could even get a proper sense as to what was happening and why exactly it was happening.
This was a big problem for, Live by Night. It was completely unwilling to give the audience the necessary context that was needed, for you to then get on board and follow along with the film. I continually felt like I was playing catch-up with the story, the characters… everything really. That was until I stopped caring, I gave up on trying to understand how we got to where we were, or where this sudden character development occurred. What this film became for me, was an assortment of scenes in which I had no idea as to who anyone was, what their motivation was in relation to anyone else, and what exactly it was that they were trying to achieve. I was so disconnected by the end that I couldn’t even muster up the ability to care, when it came to the final big shootout. I just sat, slumped in my chair, hoping it would be over soon – something that is never good when sitting watching a film.
In the entirety of this film, there was only one shining beacon of hope: Sienna Miller – who plays Emma Gould. Out of nowhere, Miller delivers the only fully fleshed out and nuanced performance in the entire film. Unfortunately she is barely in the film, but when she is given the chance, she is able to achieve more in the few minutes that she has, while other characters who are given a life time compared to her, fail to make any sort of impact on the film. The final scene in which she appears in was perhaps the only moment where I truly felt the want to sit up and pay my full attention. She delivers on a character in such a heart breaking way, she really does show just how beat down and lost her character has become, and she does it all by doing so very little. I honestly feel that if her part was bigger in the film, that she would be a genuine contender this award season. Sadly, the short time she has on-screen will mean she will be overlooked.
Live by Night was a heaping disappointment. This film couldn’t find its way to achieving anything that it set out to, and it all results in a total lack to want to invest in the film. But I think the biggest sin that it commits; one that no film ever wants to: is that it’s boring.
So with all that I’ve said, I think it’s pretty obvious that I will not be recommending, Live by Night. You will not gain anything from going to watch this film and in a time where we are being inundated with ‘Best Picture’ Oscar contenders, I don’t think you’ll be struggling to find other films to watch. So feel free to pass this one by and see what else is on offer.
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