2007 saw the release of Ben Affleck’s directorial debut, the adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s Gone baby Gone, which earned rave reviews for the former Daredevil and J-Lo’s ex, whose career took a McConaissance turn. 10 years later, amidst the badly received Batman v Superman and another muddled personal affair, we are a few months away from the release of Live by Night, another Dennis Lehane adaptation, again directed and led by an Affleck. The film is expected to hit theatres in January, which is a good opportunity to enter the Oscar race and according to early predictions this might be this year’s dark horse for the Academy Award.
Gone baby gone marked the second time a Dennis Lehane novel was brought to life for the silver screen after Clint Eastwood’s haunting Mystic River. The conflict in both of these movies is triggered by a crime. In the first one, two detectives investigate the disappearance of a small girl, an assignment, which draws comparisons with the infamous unsolved Madeleine McCann case. In the second one, four friends are brought together when the daughter of one of them is murdered and this episode bring them back to the night, which pulled them apart. Both acts of violence set a sense of urgency, where viewer and protagonist run against time in order to solve the mystery at hand. The plot, however, is used as a device, which propels the real investigation, which probes into characters.
Dennis Lehane’s characters are all shaped by two factors- they are children of the city and soul of Boston, as well as grown-ups who are marked by the duality of Catholicism. This is what makes Lehane a good storyteller, this is also why I wonder if Ben Affleck knows how to tell the story of Live by Night. In one of his interviews on his new Boston gangster trilogy, the Joe Coughlin series that Live by Night is a part of, the author comments on the recurring theme of Catholicism and how it has been an integral part of his upbringing and his writing career:
“I think I’m a very spiritual man,” says Dennis, “but I wouldn’t say I’m a religious man, much to my wife’s consternation. Catholicism gets grafted onto you, and if you become a writer it’s so ready-made for it — it’s so allegorical, so symbolic, it’s so concerned with the questions that writers ask anyway, like ‘Why are we here?’ and ‘What is the nature of man?’ These are the kinds of things you’re constantly asking if you’re raised Catholic and went to a Jesuit High School, like I did.”’
Gone baby Gone’s compelling narrative is built on this conflict and while the two detectives (Casey Affleck and Bridget Monaghan) encompass the main arguments for each side, it is ultimately the supporting characters, like Amy Ryan’s careless mother, who add weight to the core conflict. In contrast, Live by night relies heavily on its protagonist, played here by a miscast Ben Affleck, whose inner conflict creates the conflict at hand. The first problem is that Ben Affleck is too old to portray 20-something Joe Coughlin, as opposed to the middle aged Batman in Zach Snyder’s latest. The second one is that Joe Coughlin is a sympathetic character, who embodies the spirit of the age, which fostered the likes of Gatsby and the Godfather and Ben Affleck lacks the charisma or likability to make it work, the qualities that won Alden Ehrenreich the much coveted role of Han Solo earlier this year.
Judging by the trailer, it remains to be seen who out of the supporting cast will get a good opportunity to shine besides Sienna Miller, who is slowly making a good comeback after her turn in High-Rise this year. It is a relief to see Zoe Saldana in another role, which doesn’t hide her behind Avatar or green paint but Affleck’s script may muddle her character similarly to the way it handled Angela Genaro (Bridget Monaghan) in Gone baby Gone. Chris Cooper has a 50-50 chance to shine, which ties in with Elle Fanning’s character as they portray father and daughter, whose fate is entwined.
Another undeniable strength of the movie is its stunning cinematography, shown in the magnificent scenery shots of Florida captured with ARRI Alexa 65, the camera used in The Revenant and soon to be seen at work in Rogue One. It is a camera, whose wide lense adds depth to the image and brings vividness to the imagery. This is why I can see a few entries in the technical categories in the Oscars next year but I am still in two minds about the execution. While a lot of people speculate that this is a vain project for Ben Affleck and we will see how much of a gamble his gangster drama is it never hurts to hear Hozier address your soul and choices.
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