In Live by Night, Ben Affleck’s Joe works in the fringes of the crime world. But he is not interested in getting into the circle or climbing the hierarchy. He is there to simply make some money. If he has to attach a romantic notion to his profession, he prefers to see himself as an outlaw: those rogue heroes from America’s mythical Wild West, who, despite their unlawful histrionics, have a nobility about them. Live by Night is a gangster movie set in a time when the heady lifestyle of gangsters was yet to enter pop culture. In real life, organized crime in cities were in the nascent stage, born out of the Prohibition era. The Saturday shows we see Joe taking his son to plays “Riders of the Eastern Ridge”. It is about “an honest sheriff and a dirty town”.
The outlaw, in a sense, is the proto-gangster. Even as Live by Night points at the commonalities of these two quintessentially American figures, it centers on their moral difference. Affleck’s Joe is a smooth businessman and a natural leader, yet there are things his code of ethics simply won’t allow him to do: like bump off Albert White, his employer in his initial days of working with criminals in Boston, when a rival gives him the proposal. He threatens to reveal Joe’s affair with White’s girlfriend if he doesn’t do the job.
Religion creeps into the movie when Joe’s plans of building a casino clashes with the sermons of a rising, young preacher (Elle Fanning). Fanning’s character is that of a teenager who finds the path of god after she goes through hell when she goes to Los Angeles to become a Hollywood actress. Instead of disliking each other, these two people form a connection. That’s because he knows what it is to be gnawed at by thoughts of mortal sin.
Joe is all for inclusivity, working with Cubans and blacks, communities the rest of the American underworld sneers at. These are remarkable virtues for the period and the kind of hero he is portrayed as: the early Westerns were notoriously racist. But this is a fantasy for Affleck, director of the film and writer of the screenplay—based on Denis Lehane’s novel of the same name—who has tried to meld his love for these genres with his ideological beliefs.
The movie looks gorgeous; Robert Richardson captures the snowy nights of Boston and the warm, sunny tones of Tampa Bay with great style. I wasn’t bored one bit but a lot of what goes on the surface may seem too full of the genre clichés: the back stabbings, the Church’s omnipresence in the life of a Catholic gangster and the elusive happy life that he seeks but never finds.