Screened Out – Live by Night

By : Stephen Miller
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Ben Affleck, Chris Messina, Chris Cooper, Sienna Miller, Zoe Saldana, Brendan Gleeson

It’s difficult to imagine anyone would want to watch Live by Night twice. In the middle, I found I didn’t want to watch it even once. I checked my watch four times.

Oh, sure, the sepia tones were pretty for a little while. Then all the tans started to remind me of tepid, badly cooked oatmeal – lumpy and dull, like this flick.

By dull, I mean this is a stereotypical 1930s crime film, abetted by being ponderous and meandering. The characters are also boringly beige; the lead character is completely indecipherable. The only good news is that it’s easy to nitpick minor flaws while you’re waiting for something interesting to happen.

Brilliant cinematographer Richard Robertson adds some of the only real artistry to Live by Night.

Brilliant cinematographer Robert Richardson adds some of the only real artistry to Affleck’s Live by Night.

So much of the film is just bland people sitting around talking! And when characters aren’t babbling, Affleck’s sloppy narration drones on, telling us things we didn’t want or need to know.

(Most good screenwriters know that voice-over is often a crutch for lazy or bad writing; it’s called a “picture show” not a “picture tell.”)

Affleck is a 1930s Boston crook who tries to avoid mob work. The problem is that he’s dating an Irish mob boss’s moll (Miller). It doesn’t help that Affleck’s dad (Gleeson) is a local deputy with some serious tough love for his delinquent son. When people die – including some of Gleeson’s cop friends – Affleck vows revenge on one mob by joining another.

Unfortunately, it’s a revenge that takes years; Affleck is easily distracted.

And in the long run, we wonder why we even needed to see the first 20 minutes of the movie. Affleck falls in love, starts business ventures, and all but forgets about his bloodlust.

What makes Live by Night so tragic is that, as a director, Affleck has up to this point maintained a pretty admirable run. Gone Baby Gone had a strong setup and a stellar ending, buoyed by great actors. The Town was a very solid Boston heist flick, supported by great actors. Argo really deserved best picture, partially for its great acting. (It was written by other people, too; despite his Oscar shared with Damon, Affleck may not be the best screenwriter.)

Wonderful actors like Brendan Gleeson have no chance to shine.

Wonderful actors like Brendan Gleeson have no chance to shine.

Even great actors like Gleeson and, later, Chris Cooper as a corrupt sheriff cannot fix Live by Night. Instead, Affleck’s prolix adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s novel doesn’t have likeable or intriguing personalities. Affleck’s protagonist seems to have no firm wants or needs and no really discernable characteristics.

Also, the plot has no momentum whatsoever.

When Live by Night moves to Ybor City, Floridians might feel a momentary rush of hope. But don’t risk it; Ybor doesn’t even look like Ybor. (It was filmed in Georgia.) The visuals do very little to evoke Ybor, Tampa, and the surrounding area – a swampy shot here, a palm tree there… Ybor’s cigars and rum are minor blips in the plot. Mostly, Live by Night focuses on that weird rumor of tunnels under the city; never mind the Florida water table.

Ratings Key

See it now! Buy the DVD! Quote lines at parties!

Definitely worth the price of admission

It’s useful as a distraction

Maybe if someone else pays and you need a nap

Slightly worse than eternal damnation

That’s not to say the photography isn’t gorgeous. Perhaps the only thing Affleck did right was hire Robert Richardson (who works with Tarantino, but has also done Wag the Dog and Hugo). Together, Affleck and Richardson shoot the scant few action sequences with deftness and aplomb. The imagery in the many, many, many static shots is often sumptuously beautiful.

That, unfortunately, doesn’t even come close to livening up the oatmeal a sticky mess of substandard plot, strange costume choices, clichéd dialogue, and really boring, inconsistent characters.

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