Last month, hints that Ben Affleck’s new “Live by Night” might be a late-hour awards contender began to drop.
After all, Affleck’s commendable career as a director has yielded three Oscar-worthy films: “Gone Baby Gone,” “The Town” and “Argo,” which took home three statues, including Best Picture.
But “Live by Night” has slipped into theaters without a stir. The reason, regrettably, is that it’s unexpectedly lifeless.
Affleck adapted the screenplay from a novel by Dennis Lehane, a choice that served him well on the excellent “Gone Baby Gone.”
“Live by Night” is a standard-issue gangster film, perhaps of the type that were made in the 1930s and 1940s, after “Little Caesar” launched Edward G. Robinson to stardom and before “White Heat” upped the ante with a swaggering, suffering James Cagney.
Affleck’s Joe Coughlin begins dallying with a gangster’s moll (Sienna Miller), is beaten to a pulp, goes to prison after a robbery, works for a rival gangster, moves to Florida, gets rich from demon rum, and faces his greatest challenge when he tries to open a casino.
He also becomes involved with a dark-skinned local woman (Zoe Saldana), which raises the ire of the local KKK.
Chris Cooper plays a Florida police chief whose daughter (Elle Fanning) becomes a small celebrity, preaching about the evils of sin, after having experienced it herself in (gasp!) California.
“Live by Night” has a great deal of plot, and it all just trickles by, without much tension or any build-up-and-release.
It could be that Affleck was hoping for a “Godfather”-like film, with moments of stirring quiet, but it’s really more sluggish.
This effect could possibly be traced back to Affleck’s performance; he goes still and stoic, perhaps hoping the audience will see Joe Coughlin’s wheels turning, but instead he’s a blank. He doesn’t pop.
It doesn’t help that Affleck, buffed up for Batman, simply looks like a huge rectangle in his period suits; they don’t fit him well, and he frequently looks awkward.
Affleck can be a fine actor — he was the only thing keeping last summer’s bloated bummer “Batman v Superman” afloat — and his work here seems like more of a miscalculation than a lack of skill.
But it’s fruitless. Today’s directors — Scorsese, De Palma, Coppola, Cronenberg, Tarantino and the Coen brothers — have escalated the gangster genre to an exciting high art, which, unfortunately, has nullified the need for “ordinary” gangster pictures. “Live by Night” is as ordinary as they come.
Live by Night
Starring Ben Affleck, Zoe Saldana, Elle Fanning, Chris Messina
Written and directed by Ben Affleck
Running time 2 hours, 8 minutesBen AFfleckChris MessinaDennis LehaneElle FanningLive by NightMovies and TVZoe Saldana