It seems Ben Affleck is struggling to figure out what to do with himself as an actor.
In this month’s Live by Night, which he also wrote, directed, and produced, Affleck stars as Joe Coughlin, an Irish veteran embittered by his experience fighting World War I. Coughlin no longer believes in right and wrong, or the legitimacy of any system or authority, and so he has turned to crime in his — and Affleck’s — hometown of Boston.
Still, Coughlin refuses to join the local mobs, which he believes are engaged in another pointless war. That is, until he’s eventually forced into joining one of the gangs and setting up shop running an illegal booze operation in Florida, where he attempts to cordon off the ugliest parts of his professional life at the behest of a beautiful woman.
It’s a classic Affleck role, the kind he plays often, about the bad man who longs to be good but is haunted by the consequences of his past. However, for most of Live by Night, he seems disengaged from the character. Maybe he’s trying to come across as a lost soul, haunted by the war. Yet in too many scenes, he just looks lost in thought, as if he’s pondering the role rather than playing it. He plays Coughlin like a man with somewhere better to be.
Which may be because Affleck did have somewhere better to be: behind the camera. Over the past decade, Affleck has repeatedly proven himself a better filmmaker than actor, raising the possibility that it may be time for him to quit his day job and move behind the camera full time.
Affleck struggles with roles that demand more than simply being Ben Affleck
Affleck made his name in Hollywood as young actor, starring with his friend Matt Damon in 1997’s Good Will Hunting. And while he’s hit some bumpy patches over the past 20 years, he’s since become a huge movie star, fronting one of the most expensive and ambitious superhero franchises in Hollywood. He also makes time to star in pulpy but serious thrillers, like Gone Girl and The Accountant, that allow him to try out something more like proper acting: parts that require some amount of actual character work, rather than merely growling and body-building in front of a green screen. He often leads these films to box office success, though critical acclaim does not always follow.
But while Affleck’s turn last fall as an autistic assassin in The Accountant was sensitive enough to its subject, it came off mostly as a collection of thriller-friendly tics. And even though his gruff take on Batman as a kind of bulked-up, heavy-metal vigilante gave him an opportunity to make some grim-’n’-gritty fitness videos, it was little more than an exercise in shallow brutalism.
And these roles are clear improvements on some of the performances from early in his career. His Daredevil was an extended brief on why superhero movies can be a bad idea. Remember Pearl Harbor? Remember Gigli? (If not, consider yourself lucky.)
To be fair, Affleck has also given a number of good performances. He was effective enough in Argo, in a role that mostly served to move the plot and relied on his thick beard as a substitute for character development. He was even better in Gone Girl, in a role that wryly played off his public persona. And I, for one, have fondly nostalgic memories of him in 1995’s Mallrats.
But these are roles that essentially require him to be some version of Ben Affleck — a riff on the schlubby, not-too-meek but not-too-aggressive character that is Affleck's public persona — which, it’s fair to say, is not much of a stretch. The parts that go beyond, that require him to inhabit a character who’s very different from him, are where he struggles.
It won’t be easy for Affleck to set acting aside, because it’s clear that being an actor, and a star, is important to him. It’s part of his personal and professional identity, his public persona and private conception of himself. But it is also clear that he’s just not that great at it. He’s not awful onscreen, but it’s not where his strengths lie.
While Affleck’s acting has stagnated, his directing has flourished
Affleck’s directorial work on Live by Night is the exact opposite of his onscreen performance. It’s engaged and excited. It’s meticulous. Affleck comes across as a visual showman concerned not only with what the story is but how it is told. It looks like he’s having more fun behind the camera than he is in front of it.
Aided by cinematographer Robert Richardson, his compositions are painterly and lit with a showy precision. Windows cast rays of hard light that stripe the frames. Interiors are lit with a moody golden glow. His depiction of pre-development Florida captures the state’s natural neon beauty in a way that’s rarely seen onscreen.
The action scenes, in particular, have a crisp, nervous energy, as well as a clarity of motion and movement that is all too rare in Hollywood right now. Live by Night opens with a zippy card game heist that is shot in a single whirling steadicam take. The camera whips from subject to subject, a frenzy of motion. The scene instantly grabs you and provides a frantic sense of how the operation works in real time. The middle of the film shows off the impeccable costume and set design, and it ends with a brutal and exhausting shootout, staged with real and deserved confidence.
The film is also, outside of Affleck’s own role, a powerful acting showcase, with rich and varied performances from a slew of supporting actors, including Elle Fanning, Chris Messina, Sienna Miller, Zoe Saldana, and Chris Cooper. Affleck seems to know how to draw top-notch, emotionally engaged work out of every one of his actors — all, that is, except himself.
Live by Night has some serious flaws, namely the story, which is a mess, and the character of Coughlin, who is far too self-serving. But the movie’s strong ideas and execution suggest a real talent at the helm. Affleck’s fourth time behind the lens, it’s easily his weakest effort so far, but only because his previous three films made such a strong case for his talents as a director.
The Town is a crime picture that, like Live by Night, is marked by taut shootouts and forceful acting, including one of Affleck’s own best performances. Set in a gentrifying contemporary Boston marked by professional haves and townie have-nots, the movie boasts a lived-in sense of place, and is unusually attuned to the travails of the urban white working class. What could have been a bland and conventional crime film is, in Affleck’s hands, a crackling action movie built on the conflict between family and love, between local expectations and social ambitions.
Much the same could be said about Gone Baby Gone, a startlingly powerful detective story that is also among the most morally nuanced crime films of the past decade. Like The Town, Gone Baby Gone exhibits a deep sense of place and purpose: The brief opening sequence captures the vibe of working-class Boston — the streets, the people, the factories, the sky — with the same unfussy elegance as Live by Night captures Prohibition-era Florida. The dialogue, from a script Affleck co-wrote, is sly and truthful. It, too, boasts a handful of excellent performances, in particular Ed Harris as a hard-bitten police detective. It’s an efficient, confident little film, ambitious but unpretentious, and it remains Affleck’s best.
And then there’s Argo, a throwback thriller with lots to love that centers on the US hostage crisis in Iran in 1980. Affleck filmed it like a 1970s conspiracy movie, all hard light and film grain, and he structured it like a combination heist/procedural: It’s all about figuring out how to execute an incredibly dangerous escape plan, and Affleck takes viewers through the process, step by step. It’s not my favorite movie of Affleck’s, but it’s really solid work. I hardly need to make the case for how good it is, though — it won the Academy Award for Best Picture, for crying out loud.
And speaking of Oscars, remember: Affleck also co-wrote Good Will Hunting, which netted him an Original Screenplay Academy Award way back in 1995. He has always been more than an actor.
Affleck is a startlingly good filmmaker, and he has the potential — the ambition, the eye, the raw talent — to be a great one. He’s also a filmmaker who makes the sort of movies we could use more of right now: ambitious, intelligent, middle-budget entertainment aimed at adults. At this point, when he’s behind the camera, whatever the project, it's automatically a movie I want to see.
In contrast, he’s only an okay performer, at best a perfectly fine one, with a range limited by his own personality. I know that Affleck, and indeed lots of moviegoers, think of him as an actor, and as a star (the two are related, though they’re not the same thing). But lately he doesn’t even seem to be deriving very much happiness or inspiration from his acting career. Honestly, he seems a little bit sad.
For our sake, but also for Affleck’s, he should consider sticking to his very real strengths by staying behind the camera and leaving Batman to someone else.