So, it seems like Ben Affleck just made his Heaven’s Gate. It was bound to happen eventually. Most (not all, mind you, but most) great directors will, at some point in their careers, find themselves taking on a project so massive and ambitious that it ends up collapsing under its own weight, and becomes a potentially legendary disaster. You know, the special kind of “holy crap, what were you thinking” sort of bad movie that you could only get from an otherwise superbly talented filmmaker. Every filmmaker gets one. Duncan Jones had his earlier this year with, his bombastic yet thoughtful, Warcraft. And now, I guess it’s Ben Affleck’s turn.
Lucky for him, I really like Heaven’s Gate.
This is where I would normally do a quick plot synopsis, but frankly, that’s a near impossible task with this film, which happens to be an adaptation of the Dennis Lehane novel of the same name (the second in a trilogy, oddly enough). Within its two hour and eight minute runtime, it manages to cram in a revenge story, a character study, a crime epic, a Southern drama about race relations, a meditation on the nature of faith, a conspiracy thriller, a tragic romance, and an exploration of masculinity; sometimes juggling more than one of these at the same time. It is all over the goddamn map. Like, imagine the Godfather trilogy being cut and trimmed into a single two hour film – that is what Live By Night is.
If I had to describe it, the film basically follows a WWI vet and son of a Boston police captain, Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck), who comes back from the war to find himself sucked into the world of crime. Unforeseen circumstances eventually lead him to be jailed, and later working under the mob boss, who sends him to Florida to be a rum-runner. There, he quickly makes himself comfortable, especially after meeting Graciella Corrales (Zoe Saldana), and he begins to think bigger. I swear, it took me like ten minutes just to write this tiny paragraph, there is so much I’m leaving out, you have no clue.
That might sound messy, bloated, choppy, overblown, and unfocused…and you would be right. It absolutely is all those things. It feels like there is a scene that is just gone every five minutes. Many scenes don’t have a proper flow. Characters are suddenly introduced, and disappear until the film decides it needs to bring them up again by the time you forgot about them – and that’s assuming the film even brings them back at all. The story meanders in a way that feels too segmented and disjointed, not having some level of urgency or propulsion with a clear and cohesive throughline. It results in a film that has several different plots going on at the same time, and you’re only given about half the information you need to fully understand what is going on at any given point. It will not surprise me if there is an extended version leaning close to three hours, or more.
However, as bad as that is – and I’m not excusing it – I think the film is still rather interesting and compelling, in it’s own weird way. I always get a kick out of seeing filmmakers go big and swing for the fences, and boy, oh boy, does Affleck swing for the fences with this one. It’s an exceptionally well made film, with glorious camera work (with the great cinematographer, Robert Richardson), and attention to detail. I like that it’s not really an action film, it is a methodically crafted drama that allows the characters to breath. Affleck really lets you soak in the Southern scenery, and early 20th century detail. It may not be quite as indulgent as something like Heaven’s Gate, but within the moments where you get a glimpse at the lives of these characters, you really do get a lot out of those little glimpses. The sets are extraordinary, and the scope of the production just feels massive, yet grounded.
I also think Affleck has a lot to say about America with this film. He presents the world as a place where criminal and authority are almost co-conspirators, always working with each other in a way that presents an illusion of conflict when really, they are practically one in the same. It’s not even treated like a big deal, we get scenes like Joe meeting with Tampa’s police chief, Irving Figgis (Chris Cooper), just to tell him that he’s with the mob and what his plans are going to be, and it’s treated like a formality, like there’s nothing wrong with it. Later, when Joe begins to conflict with the KKK (yeah, this happens), he is told it will be difficult to deal with them because the KKK is made up by people of power, cops, politicians, judges, etc. This is a film that totally dives into the underbelly of America, seeing it as a place where corruption, hatred and violence is something that is ingrained in the very foundation of this country, and the institutions that are keeping it running and keeping their power away from the marginalized. When the film gets into moments that touch on this, I was shocked at how weirdly relevant the film was.
The film also dives into things like faith, Christianity, and how it can be used and abused to meet ends that are only ultimately self-serving. It gets into the idea of fate, and karma, about how sins of the past can haunt you later on. However, the focus is mostly on Joe as a character, as a jaded man clinging onto some shred of humanity. His choices are made with a clear understanding of where he is coming from, but the consequences, and how he deals with them are what really builds him, and makes him interesting. Affleck is really strong here, as well as the rest of the cast, with bright spots in Elle Fanning, Chris Messina, and Sienna Miller, among many others.
If you’re looking for a proper good movie, then unfortunately, Live By Night will not be it. Ben Affleck had a million ideas, and decided to use every single one of them. I can’t blame anyone for considering it a disaster or a total failure. However, if you’re willing to take that into consideration and look past it, there are slivers of damn good filmmaking, and filmmaking that actually has something to say about the characters, and their world – and even us – in ways that can speak to some greater truths about America right at this moment in time. Admittedly, it is a lot to ask for general movie goers. For me, it’s big, bold, mature-minded, and ambitious in ways that you don’t see a lot in films these days, and I’m a sucker for that kind of stuff; I can’t help but admire it. Hey, at the very least, you get to see Ben Affleck shoot a klansman in the face. That’s just good cinema. 60/100