Imagine you’re sitting in the theater watching Star Wars, and the Millennium Falcon is flying toward the Death Star and is caught in its tractor beam. As this happens, a narrator comes over and says, “They entered the Death Star and discovered the princess and rescued her, and Obi-Wan died as they tried to escape.” Then, the film cuts to a shot of the Falcon flying away. A little maddening, no? What happened during all of that narration? Sounds like it would’ve made for an amazing sequence of events to see.
Such is the experience of watching Live by Night, the latest film from actor/director/writer Ben Affleck, who handles the starring role, the direction, and the script for this effort. His performance is about what one would expect from Affleck at this point in his career; not particularly spectacular, but a good, serviceable performance. This is an utterly beautiful film, shot to absolute perfection by Affleck and cinematographer Robert Richardson. Affleck really knows how to stage a scene and that continues to be evident in this film. Its mostly depression-era setting is fantastic and done with a lot of practical sets and props, to the credit of the entire production. So much is right with this film, it’s impossible to conceive that it is one of the worst films of the year.
The script for this film is god-awful in every sense of the word. Scene after scene after scene is laden with an abundance of narration wherein Affleck’s Joe Coughlin narrates entire sequences of events that sound amazing, if only the audience could witness them. Even what we get in the film of the story arc is dreadful; it spends its opening fifteen minutes or so making a fantastic villain of Robert Glenister’s Albert White, and then he vanishes wholesale from the story, only referred to a handful of times and only very briefly appearing again at the ending of the film. As the bulk of the story deals with Coughlin’s rise in a rival mob pushing White’s business out, it is tragic that the film completely forgets about him.
That is the greatest pain of watching this film; it’s boring. Action sequences that are packed into the trailer are mostly transitional compilations of shots that are run over with Coughlin’s narration and are utterly weightless. After witnessing the brilliance of what he and Chris Terrio did in Argo, with their ability to build tension as events unfold, this is a disaster of epic proportions. Affleck’s Coughlin rarely emotes, and strolls through scene after scene basically as a bystander to events. By the time it actually gives him something to do at the end of the film, it’s empty and meaningless. When things happen to this character that should emotionally resonate with an audience, it means nothing. Affleck spends over two hours “telling” and not “showing” the story, and in a visual medium like film, that is criminal.
The scope of the story just seems like it got away from Affleck somewhere during the process. The film still manages to clock in at over two hours but it seems stuck in neutral at various points, particularly wherein it requires Affleck’s Coughlin to attempt something that resembles character development. There is an entire second film narrated within Live by Night that sounds fantastic. A better writer could have taken all of these additional plot points and eschewed some of the more useless, plodding, dragging scenes and included something that really felt like it carried weight.
The film also spends a drastic amount of time on the KKK subplot of the film headed by Matthew Maher’s RD Pruitt, and his character is so god-awful atrocious every time he steps on screen it made me want to walk out of the theater. Nevermind the fact that this subplot drags on and on and on and then- as with every other subplot in the film- is neatly wrapped up in a minute or so of narration instead of leading to a tension-filled climax that might actually feel intriguing to watch. Affleck’s screenplay here is less a “script” than it is a jumbled mess of words tossed onto a page by someone whose writing clocks in somewhere between a Dora the Explorer script and a documentary about sand, although saying as much is an insult to people who write Dora and sand documentaries. It is insulting to anyone who has ever studied or practiced the craft of writing, particularly screenwriting or stories.
It is quite simply mystifying that so many great pieces were in place for this film; Affleck was adapting another Dennis Lehane novel and directing it for the screen, but where he succeeded in Gone Baby Gone, he fails utterly and completely here. Every single great element and performance and design element in this film is destroyed by the utter ineptitude under the pen. My recent trip to the dentist was more thrilling and engaging than my trip to the theater to see this film. It is basically a checklist of “don’ts” for a Hollywood screenwriter, and the assumption by Affleck that he can skate the entire story of this film on meaningless narration is downright sickening. He should be embarrassed and should personally apologize to every great actor that worked their butts off in this film only to be hampered by an atrocious narrative construct. He should personally apologize to every single person who sat in a theater to suffer through this god-awful flapping mess. Investment in characters begins and ends with living and breathing with those characters throughout their life-moments up on the screen, not telling the audience about them in passing. This utterly lost and nonsensical heap belongs in a garbage can next to a Wal-Mart bargain bin, buried underneath a half-filled Slushie and a case of expired Greek yogurt. No one should ever see this complete disaster, and one can pray that it bombs hard enough to force Warner Brothers to hire a third screenwriter to save The Batman before Affleck’s “writing talent” poisons that as well. Two out of ten stars.