It’s a peculiarly sinking feeling when a film is not merely as bad as reviews would suggest, but even worse. So it is with Ben Affleck’s Live by Night, his follow-up to Argo, and part of a rough trilogy of Boston films that stretches back to Gone Baby Gone and The Town. This time around, however, the action is less directly centred on Beantown, as Affleck plays Joe Coughlin, a Boston outlaw who makes his way to Tampa during the Prohibition era in order to extract revenge upon the Irish boss responsible for the death of his girlfriend. Once he’s there, Joe becomes embroiled in the local Italian mafia, as they attempt to construct a casino and maintain their monopoly over the bootlegging economy, leading to a series of encounters with other crime syndicates and financial interests, as well as the Tampa city council and police force. As with Gone Baby Gone, Affleck’s screenplay is based on a Dennis Lehane novel, but Live by Night is much more beholden to Lehane’s voice, making for a much more bloated and melodramatic genre exercise, so by-the-numbers in its stylised postures and poses that it plays as the final death rattle of the period gangster films that have become so popular once again in recent years.
Yet it’s not just Affleck the actor-director who’s to blame here, but Affleck the actor. Devoid of even the most residual or incidental charisma, he speaks all his dialogue in the same grating monotone as his lengthy voiceovers (and there is so much use of voiceover, especially in the opening and closing acts, that this quickly comes to feel like an illustrated audio book rather than a fully integrated feature film). While Affleck’s films always bask in a kind of heightened masculine sentimentality, there’s something irreducibly silly about the sheer degree of self-seriousness on display here, a new level of both inanity and masturbatory narcissism that often makes it feel as if we are simply watching Affleck get off on his Boston accent while dressing his cast up in period gear. While some critics have lamented the fact that his shooting schedule on the Batman v. Superman franchise apparently prevented him spending enough time on this project, Live by Night is cut from the same cloth as Affleck’s Batman, with both ventures taking his “strong, silent” screen persona to its ultimate nadir without finding a way to make its pathologies and banalities interesting or intriguing, as David Fincher and Gillian Flynn managed to do in Gone Girl.
Yet there’s something even more profoundly impotent about Affleck in Live by Night than in Batman v. Superman, as he exudes an intense passivity and negative presence that often makes it feel as if the main arc of the film is Joe’s defiant and progressive withdrawal from the diversity and exuberance of the Tampa backdrop that takes up most of the action. On the one hand, that collapses Joe into an increasingly hulking silhouette of himself, but it also imbues the film with such a soporific and lethargic tone that Affleck effectively disappears into his own shadow. At these moments, I sensed that Affleck was going for Bogart, in a distant echo of the aborted remake of Casablanca that he once proposed with Jennifer Lopez. But there’s none of the wry humour or screen presence of Bogart here, with the result that while Affleck may well become the centre of masculinity gravity within the film at large, the process is so boring and feels so irrelevant to the events playing out that you barely notice it has happened. Indeed, it was only in retrospect that I realised that most of Affleck’s face is literally shadowed by his fedora over the third act, so detached and dissociated did I feel from his screen presence in the first place.
If that weren’t enough, Affleck’s screenplay is utterly incompetent in terms of anything resembling plot, pacing, tone or character development. When the “twist” finally comes, it barely registers as such, and feels more like a way of reining in the amorphous, directionless mess of the film as a whole. Similarly, most major plot events are only really capable of being grasped in retrospect, while the passage of time, so critical to the brooding, burgeoning nature of Joe’s revenge, is completely incoherent, but without ever managing to pair a period context with a more contemporary sense of time either, as occurs, say, in The Knick. Say what you like about Affleck’s first three films, they were at least competent at this basic level, and while Live by Night’s incoherence may reflect a hurried shooting schedule, it’s also an indication that this is not really a film that is intended to be driven by plot, or by character, or by atmosphere, or by any of the other traditional hallmarks of genre cinema. Instead, Live by Night plays as the gangster genre boiled down to male melodrama, with most of the key moments playing out in terms of father-son relationships, bolstered by the confessional Irish Catholic backdrop that seeps its way into every scene, even or especially once we’re removed from Boston. Time and again, the film feels as if it is mourning the decline of proper communication between fathers and sons – especially the communication of wisdom – with every major male figure characterised by both a failure and a yearning to be as fatherly as their forebears.
In that sense, Live by Night fits quite naturally into a lineage of Irish-American gangster films – State of Grace, in particular, came to mind – which tend, on the whole, to be more bloated and melodramatic than their Italian-American forbears, partly because there is less of a sense of displacement from Ireland to America than there is from Italy to America, producing less jarring and productive incongruity, and more complacency and entitlement in turn. True to that heritage, Live by Night fetishises first-generation Irish accents and second-generation Boston accents as the hallmark of an authenticity and a claim to homeland that translates quite naturally into the United States, with the result that Joe always feels more at home and more entitled to what is around him than any of the other immigrants and ethnic groups that he encounters upon moving to Florida. Yet that very move to Florida also recapitulates the process of immigration in ways that reveal how much more entitled Joe is than people who were around before him – in some cases, long before him – giving his presence quite an ugly and unpleasant edge. Even though Joe arrives at Tampa relatively late on the scene, he exudes the kind of sentimental authority of someone who arrived first, making Live by Night feel like an allegory of white entitlement more generally, as well as the ways in which the sheer fact of whiteness is itself so often equated with claims to homeland, tradition and gravitas.
In other words, it’s hard to avoid the sense that Live by Night is a film made expressly for white people who want to feel like martyrs for navigating a post-white present, or who want to turn the simple process of acknowledging – let alone relinquishing – privilege into an act of sentimental and sententious martyrdom. Certainly, from the very outset, Affleck is keen to present himself as something of a martyr, with seemingly endless shots of him getting beaten up, thrown around and tossed out of cars gradually freezing his face into the stoically “serious” expression that remains for the rest of the film. However, that martyr complex is also enhanced by the move to Florida, where Joe’s whiteness is thrown into greater relief by the relative multiculturalism of Tampa, his Boston brogue is thrown into greater relief by working primarily with Italian-American gangsters, and his absurd Bostonface is thrown into greater relief by the film soleil backdrop. Yet it’s no surprise, either, that Affleck has virtually no interest in that backdrop except as a way of contouring his own ponderous arrogation of sincerity and seriousness, meaning, among other things, that there is no attention to the topography and space of the city, with the fabled bootlegging tunnels barely registering until the final scene. Watching Affleck as he retreated from this diversified vision of the United States into his own brooding solipsism, I was struck by how much seriousness – as opposed to profundity – is a white register, specifically the seriousness that comes from the sense of being elected or entitled to act as a guardian of values, which is pretty much the role Joe takes on here.
As a result, the very mildness of Live by Night – at least in comparison to Gone Baby Gone or The Town – is what allows the more aggressive and violent substrate of Affleck’s worldview to speak through. Devoid of much of the surface bluster and “auteurist” flamboyance of his previous films, we’re left with a vision of whiteness that often recalls the Trumpisms of La La Land, although in a considerably more bathetic and preposterous register. By the time Joe ends up in Cuba, dissociated from the white mainland, it simply feels as if Affleck has settled into the “sad face” that became a meme in the wake of the appalling reviews of Batman v. Superman. Like most faces or screenshots that become memes, the import of this expression was complex and difficult to read. Without a doubt, though, part of what we were witnessing was the very moment at which Affleck’s studied seriousness collapsed in on itself, revealing a more bathetic and banal substrate, a striving to prove a pathos and legitimacy that wasn’t even really there in the first place. Given that it’s only some time after the fact that Affleck has been able to reclaim that interview as camp parody, it’s not surprising that that face and pose finds its way into his performance in Live by Night as well, where it similarly strains and strains for a pathos that won’t be found.
In essence, that’s the pathos that comes from being an outsider – Affleck’s favourite position right back to Good Will Hunting – since Live by Night also speaks quite eloquently to the need of so many white Americans to position themselves as the coal face of diversity, if only because that sense of individualistic self-determination is such a key part of the American psyche. From the way Live by Night bangs on about it, you’d think that being a second-generation Irish immigrant was more disenfranchising at this particular point or time than being African-American, or Hispanic-American, or Cuban-American, with Affleck actually having the audacity to suggest, on multiple occasions, that he can speak pretty much fluently for all these positions. In that sense, one of the most awful aspects of the film is Joe’s relationship with Graciela Corrales (Zoe Saldana), a Cuban-American woman, since it apparently gives him carte blanche – so to speak – to wax lyrical on behalf of all the minority he encounters, while still regarding them from a lofty sentimental remove that imbues any gesture he makes with a kind of imperial beneficence. At times, it almost feels as if Affleck longs to be non-white, or to have the “cache” that comes from being non-white, as the film suggests, time and again, that fraternising with African-Americans, or doing business with African-Americans, or sleeping with African-Americans, is somehow more of an outsider position than simply being African-American (or Cuban-American or Hispanic-American or any other disenfranchised group).
Profoundly nostalgic for a time when extending a hand to non-whites – if only through business or sexual gratification – was a sign of forward-thinking, the mildness of Live by Night therefore totally belies the violence with which it whitewashes over any kind of non-white voice or subjectivity. Sure, you could almost say the film is a paean to interracial marriage – and marriage rights more generally – along the lines of Jeff Nichols’ Loving, but Live by Night is so profoundly disinterested in women except as a refraction of Affleck’s macho lugubriosity than I can’t really give it the benefit of the doubt on that score. At a more personal level, too, I’m so sick and tired of token black characters, who seem to have taken a new turn in recent cinema. No longer there merely to prevent films like Live by Night or La La land revealing themselves to be the racist fantasies they actually are (although that is of course a factor), they also play as a way of preventing audiences finally recognising the paucity and minority appeal of an all-white world. At the same time, Live by Night goes one step further, introducing token “white characters” – a self-describing member of the “landed gentry,” a Ku Klux Klan spokesman – in order to try and make Affleck’s presence seem less hegemonic than it actually is, as well as to – astonishingly – entitle him to speak from a position of racial marginality as well.
It’s perhaps no surprise that that process tends to take place around women, and while it’s a big of a mug’s game to accuse a gangster film of sexism – masculine charisma is the point – there’s something peculiarly nasty about the way women are relegated to the fringes of Affleck’s Irish Catholic fantasy as well, where they alternate between virgins and whores in a fairly programmatic manner. It makes sense that the one really fascinating character – a pornographic actress turned moral crusader, played by Elle Fanning – has to be abruptly killed off, since the film simply doesn’t know what to do with her, but there’s something even more violent and abrupt about the disposal of Joe’s wife in a drive-by-shooting. Sure, this event is supposedly making some point about white violence towards Hispanic women, but in the long run it just ends up fulfilling the film’s fantasy of a world populated exclusively by white sons and fathers receiving and disseminating wisdom without all the inconveniences of wives, mothers and daughters, let alone other races and cultures. Of course, that world is a fantasy, and even Affleck can’t make the fantasy feel plausible in 2017, but the sheer sentimentality and sententiousness of the film as a whole – the overarching sense of martyred sacrifice – is at least meant to make you feel that this fantasy was once plausible, albeit in a better, simpler time. Even more emphatically and absolutely than Gone Baby Gone or The Town, then, Live by Night is a retreat from the present, a negative gesture, less a fully-formed film than an inability or unwillingness to complete a film in the world in which we now inhabit. Argo may have been lauded for its period details, but it’s Live by Night that is the real period drama in its steadfast refusal to dramatise anything remotely relevant to the period within which it has been produced and released.