Ben Affleck’s “Live by Night” seeks to further cement his A-list director status

Oscar qualifying runs are a funny thing. Sometimes, they enhance a film’s stature and chance at awards love. Other times, they wind up creating unrealistic expectations and hurting more than they help. That seems to be the case with Ben Affleck’s fourth film behind the camera, the period gangster tale Live by Night. Created to be mainstream entertainment and exercise some genre muscle, it wound up becoming a perceived Academy Award X factor (partly due to people like me). The response hasn’t indicated a work worthy of that, but a campaign is nonetheless in motion. The movie will make money in January, but it opened yesterday hoping to make up some ground in the awards race.

In case you forgot, the film is an adaptation of the Dennis Lehane novel of the same name. It’s the second time that Affleck has gone to Lehane for inspiration, by the by. It is mostly set during the era of Prohibition and follows Joe Coughlin (Affleck), the son of a cop who begins rising through the ranks of organized crime. Things take place in Boston, Miami, Cuba, and elsewhere, as this is a generational and large scale tale of crime and punishment. It’s incredibly ambitious too, with Affleck writing, directing, and starring in his largest scale flick yet. He’s got a really interesting cast here for the movie too, including Elle Fanning, Brendan Gleeson, Zoe Saldana, Sienna Miller, Scott Eastwood, Chris Messina, Chris Cooper, Titus Welliver, Anthony Michael Hall, Chris Sullivan, and more. Big time DP Robert Richardson is the cinematographer, while William Goldenberg edits and Harry Gregson-Williams handles the score. All the ingredients were here for something special with Live By Night, at least initially.

This flick has gotten mixed reviews, with Affleck’s filmmaking again praised, but some positing that the work would have been better off as a season of television as opposed to a two hour or so movie. Basically, the story he picked was below his talents, which happens. Gone Baby Gone, The Town, and Argo were so good, expectations were sky high. If nothing else, perhaps this will be an interesting learning experience he takes to his solo Batman movie, tentatively titled The Batman. Especially if Warner Brothers can score a surprise nomination for this one, Affleck will still have the keys to the WB kingdom.

Live By Night Ben AffleckWhen you think of awards for Live by Night, it’s technical categories or bust. That being said, with the qualifying run, Warner Brothers is shooting for the moon still. Best Picture, Best Director (for Affleck), Best Actor (for Affleck too), Best Supporting Actor (for Cooper, Eastwood, Gleeson, and/or Messina, though mainly Messina), Best Supporting Actress (for Fanning, Miller, and/or Saldana), Best Adapted Screenplay (for Affleck as well), Best Production Design, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Original Score are the hopes. Again, it’s pretty much tech or bust, so watch out for Production Design, Cinematography, or Costume Design. That’s where this one could break through.

In the end, Live by Night is a commercial outing getting perhaps an unnecessary qualifying run. If nothing else, now more folks on the coasts were able to get an early glimpse at it before the wide release next month. Fans of Affleck will likely still enjoy this for what it is. He’s still a hell of a director, that hasn’t changed. Give it a shot and see what you think in a few weeks when it comes locally to you. Until then, just don’t expect it to be the big Oscar player that it once might have been. That ship has very much sailed away…

Be sure to check out Live by Night, out now for its Oscar qualifying run in limited release!

About Joey Magidson

A graduate of Stony Brook University (where he studied Cinema and Cultural Studies), resides in Brooklyn, New York. He also contributes to several other film-related websites.

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