After the deservedly abysmal response to last year’s Live by Night, it’s time to ask: Is Ben Affleck a great filmmaker, or just better than expected?
Is it a coincidence that the quality of his movies has decreased as expectations have unavoidably increased after every subsequently-bigger hit? I would rank his movies like so: Gone Baby Gone > The Town > Argo >>> Live by Night. Some may disagree with that order – including the Academy, obviously – but no one can argue that thwarted expectations even won Argo the Oscar: the attention garnering outrage after Affleck’s snub for a Best Director nomination hugely boosted the movie’s Best Picture stock. Would it have still won without that setback?
Similarly, would Affleck be considered a great director today without audience’s general surprise that he could even hold a camera after the first half of his career bombed out like Gigli? This unfairly maligned flick could be considered a case study in how audience’s perception of an artist’s career trajectory can infect evaluations of their work. Was Gigli that bad, or did people just attack it to express their general fatigue regarding Affleck? Was Gone Baby Gone that good, or were the masses just so shocked Affleck could direct – and so willing to believe in comeback stories, because if he can be successful at multiple vocations, that means anyone could be, including themselves – that they welcomed him back with a tad-too-open arms?
Or, perhaps Affleck is yet again committing the same mistakes that torpedoed his first ascension: an overabundance of confidence regarding his own abilities to transcend inferior-material. On his youthful quest towards acting superstardom, he tended to choose the flashiest roles regardless of their quality, as if he believed his skills would more than compensate for this paucity. And now, he’s directing movies with increasingly weaker screenplays, as if he believes the hype that his auteur-prowess will forgive their obvious-flaws.
His script for Live by Night is incompetent at best, incoherently scatterbrained at worst. Luckily, its lack of focus – which takes the form of too many characters, all underwritten – provides Affleck with the opportunity to show off one of his most redeemable traits: ensemble casting (obligatory shout-out for a consummate theatre actor appearing on the big screen: MATTHEW MAHER!!!). But again, this widely praised positive must be couched with a rarely discussed negative: his direction usually steers them towards being scenery chewing hams, which he himself as a performer is prone to.
This same, “he’s good, but maybe not as good as initially heralded” also applies to his general aesthetic as a director: he displays an impressively-cinematic eye, but visual style is different than visual storytelling, and the former can often hurt the far-more-important latter. Even the most seemingly superficial aspects of Affleck’s direction in Live All Night detracts from the overall proceedings, from the nonsensically altered color-palette to the egregious makeup (HIS EYELINER!!!).
I’m by no means implying Affleck doesn’t have the capacity to become a great director; quite the opposite, in fact. His early work showed tremendous promise, which appears to have been stunted by the world prematurely proclaiming his directorial greatness. His second rise-to-the-top has been based on a combination of people’s love for comeback stories and quality work, yet he’s now making the same misguided artistic decisions that resulted in his need to come back in the first place. Here’s his oy-vey 2016, a story of dreck: Batman v Superman, The Accountant, and Live by Night.
I sincerely want Ben Affleck to get back on track, thus the reason I’ve staged this reappraising intervention. For his next project, Witness for the Prosecution, hopefully he remembers what lofted him into the public eye in the first place – his writing on Good Will Hunting – and prioritizes having a rock-solid screenplay before he ever yells “ACTION!” again.