LIVE BY NIGHT—winner of the Mystery Writers Edgar Award for Novel of the Year, Dennis LeHane’s 2012 bestseller is 401 pages of a sensationally good read. After Ben Affleck’s terrific directorial debut handling LeHane’s Gone Baby Gone, and his following skilled work manning the con for The Town (writing & starring) and Argo (producing, directing & starring), hopes were high for this 2016 crime epic, where the energetic and resilient personality again assumed multiple duty. Starring, directing and co-producing, he also wrote the script. He bit off too much this time, critics chewed it up and the passion project was a huge box-office bomb.
During Prohibition, a war vet turned bank robber (Affleck) aligns with Irish-American gangsters in Boston, then is compelled to switch allegiance to Italian-American hoods in Florida. Falling for a rum-running Cuban revolutionary (Zoe Saldana), he tries to maintain some semblance of honor within his shady end of the swamp, and battles the KKK as well as rival mobsters. Dreams are laid, lead gets sprayed.
As a physical production, it’s very impressive, with big crowd scenes, lavish sets, acres of snazzy period clothes, cool jalopies and tommy guns galore. Directing, Affleck stages some elaborate action scenes, including a snappy chase early on and a big mop-up gunfight, with a score of skillful mayhem vignettes during the leisurely 129 minute sprawl. He gets good work from Sienna Miller, Elle Fanning and Brendan Gleeson.
He fumbled the script, trying to cram in too much, using poorly etched voice-overs to link episodes and dropping more profanity bombs than feel right for the era. In the dismaying vein of so many recent films portraying past events, the dialogue sounds too modern: did anyone say “blowback” in 1932? Would even a hooker say “motherf—r” back then? Add some p.c. attuned speecheasyness. A few key supporting players lack gravitas: Chris Messina, Gianfranco Terrin and Max Casella are flatfooted. While the action looks great, Affleck miscalculated with his sound effects team: the pop-pop & rat-a-tat noises may be technically accurate, but they don’t convey any verve on film. Why do you think we heard all those different gun noises over the decades? the studios created a wide variety of them because they had dramatic impact– this is make believe, after all.
His own delivery is another major flaw. Critics spent years deriding Affleck’s acting, but they were often just flailing him for his perceived persona and publicized private life. Judged fairly, his performances ran/run the gamut from poor (Gigli) to excellent (Hollywoodland), so the tiresome Ben-bashing got/remains lazy, especially coming from smug hacks, 90% of whom couldn’t produce, direct or act their way out of a chair (let alone bluff their way into Jennifer Lopez bedroom). Here, alas, he does earn a wake-up backhand, for droning in the voiceover (paging Harrison Ford in Blade Runner) and for rarely seeming awake during many of his scenes. He looks awkward in the clothes, strikes too many poses and shows so little energy and emotion that you can’t get involved enough to care about the central figure all the showy business swirls around. He’s boring.
Misfire. $65,000,000 to shoot, millions more to market, with a worldwide take sapped out at $16,500,000, industry speculation sees Warner Brothers on the hook for as much as $75,000,000 down the drain. If old-time mobsters ran the studio, Benjy would be taken for ride.
With Chris Cooper, Robert Glenister, Matthew Maher, Miguel, Titus Welliver and Anthony Michael Hall ( in a neat bit, a long way from Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club). Read the book.