Ben Affleck has acted in his fair share of critically-drubbed films, from the recent Batman v Superman (27 percent freshness rating on critic aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes) to the legendary bomb Gigli (6 percent). But the Cambridge native has had a spectacular track record as a director. All three films he’s directed (Gone Baby Gone, The Town, and Argo) earned a 94 percent or higher from Rotten Tomatoes and were nominated for at least one Academy Award.
That bulletproof streak appears to have ended with Live By Night.
As of this article’s publication, Live By Night — which Affleck wrote, directed, and starred in, and is based on the Dennis Lehane novel of the same name — has a 32 percent freshness rating on Rotten Tomatoes. While most of the negative reviews are not outright pans — many critics gave the film two stars or an equivalent letter grade — the majority of them are nonetheless not positive. It should be noted that Rotten Tomatoes competitor Metacritic — which weighs how positive or negative a review is as opposed to using a fresh/rotten dichotomy — gives Live By Night a more middle-of-the-road score of 48.
Many negative reviews found fault with at least one aspect of Affleck’s work, whether that be his directing, writing, or acting.
Ty Burr of The Boston Globe gave the film two stars, criticizing Affleck’s inability to craft a coherent screenplay.
Affleck the screenwriter seems to have dumped the story onto the kitchen table and pushed it around like dough, hoping for some shape to emerge. It resists.
Manohla Dargis of The New York Times said that Affleck wrote himself a role he couldn’t handle, and dominates the film to its detriment.
Mr. Affleck handles the busy narrative without finding its hook, but his biggest problem is that he’s fallen for his leading man. […] In Live By Night, Mr. Affleck grabs the center and doesn’t let go, partly, it seems, because he’s invested in being a movie star. (Certainly that’s the only rational explanation for Batman v Superman, other than the paycheck.)
Variety‘s Owen Gleiberman was a bit more benevolent, praising Affleck’s performance, but arguing that Affleck’s directing neuters the role.
…I’m tempted to say that Affleck the actor is subtly undercut, in this case, by Affleck the behind-the-camera shaper of his own image. A different filmmaker might have encouraged him to go to more ominously unexpected places. There’s a lot of surface energy to the pileup of incidents in Live By Night, but there’s still something cautious and staid about the material.
Other critics were more generous, but stopped short of giving the film full marks.
Peter Travers of Rolling Stone gave the movie three stars, writing that while the film feels overcrowded, you “can’t take your eyes off it.”
The feeling persists that the material would have cut deeper as a miniseries worthy of binge-watching. Still, Live By Night looks amazing (a tip of fedora to cinematographer Robert Richardson), and Affleck shines as a director of actors and action. The man knows how to create a haunting gangster noir worth getting lost in.
The AV Club’s Jesse Hassenger said that while Live By Night doesn’t match Affleck’s previous directorial efforts, he is improving technically. Hassenger also compared Affleck favorably to Clint Eastwood.
On a purely technical level, Affleck is only getting better. He and Warner both clearly see their relationship as a successor to Clint Eastwood’s longtime association with the studio, with their big star doing commercial work for his home base as the executives give him carte blanche to make “one for him,” as it were.
James Verniere of The Boston Herald gave the film a B, but it’s hard to find even a single positive sentence in his review, despite Verniere name-dropping both The Godfather and Chinatown in his opening paragraph.
Affleck’s Joe seems to have a tummy ache, turning what might have been another Michael Corleone into a cream-suited tuna with a brand-new haircut (not to mention that faux hairline). […] Live By Night is still worth seeing, if only for the blazing final shootout. But it’s no gangster-movie nirvana.