I’m a sucker for a Prohibition-set yarn. It’s a fascinating period in history and typically yields excellent filmmaking with gritty, no-nonsense performances, gorgeous production design and hard-boiled action. It was De Palma’s The Untouchables that hooked me. Some would call it a guilty pleasure; and sure, Morricone’s score is a little over-the-top, De Niro is more caricature than character actor as Al Capone and I’m not going to argue that Connery’s Oscar was a “sympathy vote”, but it’s got everything I mentioned above in spades and for me it’ll always be the high benchmark of the Prohibition era gangster epic. Ben Affleck’s fourth turn as director has done nothing to change my position on that.
Live by Night is an uninspired mess, from voice-over laden start to disastrously predictable end, bringing nothing new or exciting to the table. Beat for beat, its weak script moves from one sigh-inducing cliché to another, reaching clumsily for moments of high emotion that ring hollow and false. If anyone needs any further proof that Matt Damon did all the heavy lifting on the script for Good Will Hunting, they need look no further. It feels wrong to come down so hard on Affleck after his back-to-back successes as a director, but this is more akin to the first work of a blundering novice, and also certainly not what we’ve come to expect of a Dennis Lehane adaptation (see Mystic River, Shutter Island and Affleck’s own incredible directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone). His decision to wear so many hats on this project, producing, directing, sole screenwriter and lead actor, has to be the reason for this stumble. The script desperately needed another set of eyes and the part of Joe Coughlin was clearly written for someone younger and more capable of performing with the subtlety needed to play someone who has to traverse the number of moral dilemmas he’s faced with. Hopefully, this inevitable failure will be what convinces Affleck that his place should be behind the camera directing other people’s scripts and guiding other people’s performances.
Speaking of the performances, there is a massive curve in this collection of acting that swings wildly from the cartoonish to the nuanced. To start with, we have Matthew Maher as a KKK member out for his cut and Robert Glenister as an Irish mob boss, both of whom are supposed to be playing dangerous and threatening but can’t do any better than laughable and two-dimensional. Then there’s Chris Messina and Affleck himself as the hoods on the rise, their chemistry is ill-advised at best as they both seem to think they’re in a buddy comedy as opposed to a serious piece of gangster melodrama A favorite of mine, Brendan Gleeson, sadly leaves the screen within the first twenty minutes and that left me with only the inimitable Chris Cooper to look forward to. The subplot involving him and Elle Fanning, as his born-again daughter speaking out against Coughlin’s sinful ways is not without problems of its own, but at least they sell it. That should be no surprise on Cooper’s part, but now between this and The Neon Demon last summer; Fanning is firmly on my radar as one to watch. My hope was that we were going to get some tremendous battle of wills between her and Affleck’s character akin to Paul Dano and Daniel Day-Lewis’ conflict in There Will Be Blood, but that was definitely asking too much. Fanning’s role, like Gleeson’s, is unfortunately cut short just as it gets good.
I guess The Untouchables is starting to sound less like a guilty pleasure and more like a masterpiece when compared to this regrettable misfire.
1 ½ out of 5