The plot doesn't suck.
I don’t read reviews until after I’ve seen the movie. In this case, I left the theater loving the plot structure. Then I read some reviews and saw that Ben Affleck’s Live By Night is getting pretty roundly slammed, the chief complaint being the movie’s structure.
So I guess I’m wrong? But I don’t feel wrong. I’ve got some experience writing and directing a feature (so what if it was a no-budget low-brow dark comedy), and this movie felt like the offering of a mature filmmaker. Yes, it has an unconventional plot, especially for a mob movie, but that’s what I loved about it.
Maybe that’s why critics are bristling at it? More than once, they refer to the movie’s “gangster tropes” in bittersweet tones, like they were predictable offerings, but as jilted mob movie audience members, they’d begrudgingly take what they could get.
People have been making mob movies since before people were making movies. The plot is pretty goddamn predictable. Your main character is lured by the power of a brush with the mob, then cue two (sometimes three) hours of running time wherein the protagonist reliably sacrifices his morals (Is it always a him? Do we have any lady-driven mob movies?), replacing them with loyalty to the family. Decades usually pass and he becomes a husk of his former self, rising to power and then imploding like a dying star via drugs or betrayal or both.
That’s why I didn’t really want to see this movie. But I love Ben Affleck as a director. And as a writer. And, if I’m being sheepishly honest, as an actor.
So my love of Ben got me into the theater. And I very quickly realized this wasn’t going to be a typical gangster plot. But I didn’t have to be the world’s greatest detective to ferret this out. Affleck straight-up tells you in the intro voice over.
Our hero is an outlaw, not a gangster. He’s not a joiner. He’s not interested in either of the film’s prominent mobs (a hat trick if you count the KKK). And he’ll be damned if anyone is going to tell him what to do. Right then, I was like “Hot spit! This guy is rad. I might actually dig Ben Affleck in this Ben Affleck mob movie!”
Without straying too far into Spoilerville, when the mob tries to draw him in, Affleck is like “Nah, I’m good.” He’s a criminal, but when he does things that would earn him dark side points, he reflects on it. Instead of it being easier for him to do something heinous next time, he makes different decisions. It’s even surprising to his fellow characters on screen who seem to have their own expectations that this, in fact, is supposed to be a mob movie.
Free from being driven by joining up, our protagonist uses the mob(s) to achieve what he wants. And what he wants changes throughout the course of the film. But it should. Your main character is supposed to start out wanting one thing and then realizing (usually at the midpoint) that what she actually wants is something different.
Live By Night does this. It’s not wandering. It’s just not up on obvious rails, plodding toward a predictable end. That feeling of not knowing where it’s going to go next is one thing I loved about it. It’s spontaneous while remaining connected to itself. The pacing is thoughtful and explosive.
Our hero starts out with his ideals and then some truly dynamic performances by the film’s supporting cast cause him to take stock of himself and divert course. He thinks his life is going in one direction and then an unexpected riptide pulls him in another. But he doesn’t (can’t) abandon his past. It feels real. And the movie doesn’t try to make you forget unresolved plot threads, and weaves them all together aptly in the end.
Leaving the theater, I was excitedly taking stock of all the places we’d gotten to go in the film, instead of merely skipping down the well-worn path. So if negative reviews about the plot structure are steering you away from Live By Night, hopefully my offering tips the scales enough for you to consider watching it. Because there’s some other really cool stuff going on in this movie too.
Affleck shows restraint as a director.
Not only does he position himself across from some amazing supporting talent so he can keep his performance in his wheelhouse, he makes subtle choices that show his experience as a storyteller.
When a character has a heart attack, we see only the whispers of its beginning, manifesting in the actor’s left arm. Cutting the scene short paints a more strikingly poetic picture of mortality than indulging in the on-screen drama of death ever could. It almost took me out of the movie because I loved that choice so much.
He lets a character flirt with the cardinal sin of saying the movie’s title aloud, but stops short, prompting us to say it in our heads instead.
Elle Fanning taps into the kind of gravity that bends light and makes time do weird things.
She absolutely commands attention in every scene. She’s dangerous and vulnerable and certain and conflicted and awesome. She deserves award attention for this role, but likely isn’t going to get any.
The action is fantastic.
Especially the car chase sequence. The tension isn’t hurt by the fact that they don’t even have the option of seat belts, but even the chase benefits from having an uncommon structure. Instead of having a head start and narrowing the gap, Affleck finds a way to start the chase where the main character feels screwed from the outset. Instead of racing in circles on a backlot somewhere, we quickly run out of 1920s Boston city blocks, shifting gears (sorry) and taking the chase into the woods.
Low expectations aren't a bad thing.
If icy reviews set your bar low, you’re actually in the perfect headspace to enjoy a film. Nothing worse than having something over-hyped. And honestly, just watching Batman don a fedora and kick the holy hell out of the KKK is worth any price of admission. It’s especially cathartic if you’ve been horrified by the recent political landscape in our country.
But, as always, you should decide for yourself. I’d love to know what you think!