On a visual level, Ben Affleck’s Live by Night has everything we want and have come to expect from Depression-era crime dramas: Seedy speakeasies; sultry Latin clubs; sweaty jazz musicians; gangsters with Tommy guns; explosions in bars; brutal, graphic mobster hits in full view of the public; beatings in dark alleys; men in suits and fedoras obscuring their faces in fogs of their own cigarette smoke; conversations between shady people in quiet backrooms. If Affleck were content to leave it at the stylistic level, it probably would have been just as well. Still, it’s good that he wasn’t; he has bothered to raise his film to a higher level, to craft a complicated, morally ambiguous portrait of those who chase what we’ve come to know as the American Dream.
Given the violence and the very noticeable lack of scrupulous characters, it’s natural to assume that Affleck – who not only directs, but also stars, writes, and co-produces – isn’t romanticizing the American Dream. I would argue that he is; the film tells the story of a man who, as promised in the national ethos, reaps social and economic benefits through years of hard work. The difference is that he doesn’t romanticize it in sunny Capraesque ways; the main character is a criminal, achieving success by entering several illegal rackets and associating himself with crime bosses, bootleggers, and officials who can very easily be corrupted through blackmail. And rather than make sacrifices, he pays heavy prices.
This would be Joe Coughlin (Affleck), who, upon returning from service in World War I, freed himself from the burden of following someone else’s rules. This would include taking advice from his Irish immigrant father (Brendan Gleeson), a Boston-area cop. “I left a soldier,” his voiceover narration tells us, “I came back an outlaw.” We then watch his life as it unfolds over the next decade or so, transitioning from a freelance bank robber to the right-hand man of an Italian mafioso (Remo Girone) to a runner of illegal rum in Tampa. His ambitions evolve over time from basic survival to revenge to entrepreneurship and activism, determining to legalize gambling in Florida and build a grand casino.
You’d think the most exciting scenes would be the action-driven ones – the car chase, for example, or the shootout sequences. Myself, I was more thrilled by the negotiation scenes, Coughlin and his bodyguard (Chris Messina, barely recognizable under the weight he gained for the role) often sitting across from various people whose cooperation is required, from a weak-minded chief of police (Chris Cooper) to rum runners to the Tampa chapter of the Ku Klux Klan to the chief’s daughter (Elle Fanning), whose punishment for returning from Los Angeles drug addicted and sexually experienced intertwines with a sudden transformation into a Fundamentalist Christian preaching against the sin of gambling. A shrewd talker, you have to admire the way Coughlin approaches them all; he knows just the attitude to adopt, just the right words to say, just when to be merciless and when to restrain himself.
We often hear stories about immigrants or children of immigrant families rising above adversity and achieving the American Dream. “Adversity” is a kind way of saying “hostility,” typically the result of nothing but prejudice and racism. Neither Coughlin nor the entire film is blind to our country’s long history of both. Look at how it’s narratively summarized; Coughlin is from a city where the Irish and Italians hated each other, and upon travelling to Florida, he’s surrounded not only by Hispanics with their own ethnic spats but also by white supremacists and anti-Semites. It shouldn’t be lost on any potential audience that Coughlin’s eventual lover (Zoe Saldana) is Afro-Cuban. This isn’t about the one-time legality of interracial relationships. It’s simply a direct way of pointing out that America is a nation of immigrants.
As director, Affleck has once helmed an adaptation of a Dennis Lehane novel. I haven’t read it, but I’ll say that there’s an undeniable literary feel to the film’s final act, given its lack of a concrete narrative or emotional resolution. This is likely to repel certain audiences. What they need to understand is that Live by Night isn’t about the destination, but rather the journey. I obviously can’t give away any details, although I can say that, like the beginning and middle, the end reflects the continuing evolution of Coughlin’s life; things both good and bad have happened to him, and they will continue to happen that way, even though he doesn’t know exactly what the future holds. Given his self-made success, given the rules he refused to follow and the rules he created for himself, it stands to reason he can take whatever is thrown at him.