Show don’t tell. That’s the first commandment of screenwriting. Why say something when you can show it in any number of exciting ways? That’s why visual storytelling has always been so popular, from the first cave drawings to today’s bombastic, special effects-heavy superhero films. But as thrilling or breathtaking as a film might look, without a solid story as its foundation, it becomes nothing more than eye-candy and empty calories.
Live by Night, based on Dennis Lehane’s novel, is Ben Affleck’s latest, and it reminded me a lot of the actor himself; handsome enough, sure, but a little light on substance. I have more regard for Ben’s skills as a director. Gone Baby Gone and Town were both well-crafted, brilliantly acted thrillers. Argo was a pitch-perfect period-piece that sent up both Hollywood and Washington (though it doesn’t hold up so well under repeat viewing). Live by Night is a gangster flick that looks better than his other three films, but doesn’t match their level of storytelling. It’s a very pretty face trying – and almost succeeding – to distract us from its plain-Jane narrative.
The film gets off to a cracking start as we learn that Affleck’s Joe, a veteran of the First World War, robs Boston’s banks, not because he’s a gangster, because he’s an outlaw. An outlaw with a police chief father who disapproves of his off-the-boat Irish girlfriend who also happens to be a real gangster’s moll. It’s this Irish mob boss, Albert White, and his feud with an Italian mob boss, that sweep Joe up in a decade’s worth of rum-running, gambling, and double-crossing in Prohibition-era Florida.
Your job is to help the director plan his vision of the film shot by shot, sketch by sketch. And it doesn’t take very long for your work to come to life. In an effort for him and his girlfriend to make a clean break from Albert White, Joe and his gang plan one last heist, but it goes awry. A succession of quick cuts shows us a foot on the pedal of the getaway car, a shotgun blast, the car slamming into another car, the steering wheel, a cop! It’s edge-of-your-seat exciting, ending in a great tableau of an upended car on fire in a lake, with Joe standing in the background. If only the rest of the film sustained this level of symbiosis between visuals and narrative.
But there are moments. Mostly from the exemplary cast Affleck has assembled. A trick he employed in Town and Argo, two films he both directed and starred in, was to surround himself with far better actors than himself and take on the less showy role. Unfortunately he gave himself the lead here, and Live by Night suffers for it. In his hands, Joe never becomes more than the prototypical “gangster with a conscience”. Sorry, outlaw. I kept wondering how an actor like Leonardo DiCaprio, or Christian Bale might have given Joe some layers, or at least a fighting chance in keeping up with Brendan Gleeson as Joe’s dad, Sienna Miller as his trashy girlfriend, Matthew Maher as a creepy KKK sociopath, Chris Cooper as the sympathetic police chief, or Elle Fanning (in easily the best role of the film) as Cooper’s disgraced flapper daughter. The fault might be that the characters are so flimsily rendered in the first place that it took incredible actors to bring them to life. Poor Zoe Saldana deserved a meatier role. As Joe’s Cuban wife, she is given little to do but look pretty.
And oh, does this film look pretty. One of the best things about Argo was its fanatical devotion to period accuracy (an ashtray in every scene!), a trait Live by Night shares. From the sumptuous Art Deco surroundings, to the sensual fur, satin and linen costumes, and the South Florida hotels, diners and speakeasys so palpably humid, Affleck’s attention to detail is commendably obsessive. He frames his shots carefully – a droplet of blood falling into a crystal tumbler, an eye-sized bullet hole in a car window framing a freshly shot eye – that they almost feel like panels in a graphic novel. I give kudos to you for giving him the blueprint to make these scenes a reality.
At its best, Live by Night recalls other gangster flicks like Road to Perdition, Carlito’s Way, and The Untouchables, but it fails to sustain their level of gravitas. The film’s rhythm stops and starts, its better characters aren’t around long enough, and the tone never finds its sweet spot. You drew out this movie, and Affleck rendered it beautifully, but this is one of those times I wish I’d read the book instead.