Rated R for sexuality, violence, language and racism. I'm sure that this might be a criticism from some, but Live by Night tries to do everything. So while there isn't necessarily too much violence or too much sexuality, there is some. There's some drug use and some nudity. Again, I almost forgot about that because there are so many moments of inappropriateness where none of them are huge, but they are there. So keep in mind, this is just an R-rated movie all around without necessarily being offensive.
DIRECTOR: Ben Affleck
I'm caffeinated. I found this absolutely perfect playlist (that most of the world has probably been listening to forever) for writing that isn't at all distracting and makes me feel like a real author. There's no reason that I shouldn't be able to get this done mid-morning. I got all of my work done before the day started. Really, I'm optimistic (except for the fact that I just remembered one thing on my To-Do list that hasn't gotten touched yet).
This is another entry in the long line of movies that is good to go into with a lowered sense of expectation. I remember watching the trailer for Live by Night and thinking that it didn't really appeal to me, which was a bummer because I think Ben Affleck is a remarkably talented director. He really had a rollercoaster of a career. I know that he is pretty unlikable for the things in his personal life that keep on popping up and I know that my wife is very personally defensive of Jennifer Garner. I don't know the guy and part of me might be talking from a place of ignorance or privilege, but I keep viewing him more of an artist than as a dude. Again, I can't imagine what it must be like being a celebrity. But I never saw someone who redefined himself more as an artist than Affleck. Affleck went from being the joke of Gigli to being one of those directors that can absolutely capture suspense and characters in an epic way.
So when I found out that most film fans weren't exactly enamored by Live by Night, I oddly felt vindicated that I wasn't excited by the trailer. Maybe it was just that prohibition setting and the fact that I've never really been drawn to gangster films that made it happen, but I put Live by Night behind me. But then I thought I would eventually give Affleck the benefit of the doubt. He's really impressed me in the past with Gone Baby Gone and The Town. Sure, he's got his schtick. He loves the Boston criminal who kind of represents the everyman. I get that. He makes the bad guy look really good and there's a talent to that. If I had to be critical, Live by Night, despite its setting, is kind of his comfortable place. We keep seeing a variation of the same protagonist time and again. But for a guy who went into this movie expecting him to drop the ball, there was something comforting in him presenting borderline the same movie over again. Normally, I applaud risks. But in this case, I went in to see a Ben Affleck crime drama and that's exactly what I got. It's not perfect. Out of the movies I mentioned, Live by Night might be the weakest of the group. But even the weakest of the group is extremely watchable.
It's biggest fault is that it is trying to do too much, which really muddles the message. Joe is not a good human being. When a protagonist goes beyond being an antihero and is a straight up bad guy, the character has to be criticized. Joe is selfish. He's juxtaposed by his inherently good father, who has flaws of his own. We see that he's been out for himself. Apparently, he's a terrible getaway driver and serves three years in prison. But he never really has that redemptive past. I'm probably going to be talking about all the many beats that this movie presents, but it fails to do one thing: make Joe redemptive. He does good things, that's for sure. But he isn't at all a redemptive character. Instead, the film presents the Joe as the least evil amongst a world pervaded by evil. That's a really muddy message.
If anything, Joe's big transformation isn't from bad to good, but from cocky to slightly humble. I almost feel like Affleck can't help but imbue his characters with a little bit of cockiness, so that might not actually be a character trait. But he is betrayed by a woman that becomes his central character trait. He is thrown deeper into the world of sin because his girlfriend was killed and he took the noble path of still defending her beyond her transgression. But that thrust into revenge somehow heals him a bit? He goes from being this small time crook to being the head of bootlegging in Florida. I don't know why this makes him a better person because he still does awful, awful things. But it is the love of a woman that tempers him. It's odd that Affleck chooses to actually have the revenge of Emma happen in a montage. But okay, that's a choice. It's through Joe's dealing with the various shadier characters in the underworld that we realize that Joe must be the one we support.
Now, I am starting to lose the focus of this blog because I have too much to say (I swear, I'm a decent English teacher). But I want to talk about the most messed up element of this movie. Remember, I'm one of the few people who probably really likes this movie, but I have to talk about Joe versus the KKK. Joe, a bad guy, runs into a problem with the KKK. Joe, being Catholic, Irish, and married to a Black woman, has drawn the attention of the more base elements of the KKK. He tries working with them to resolve the problems peacefully, but is stymied by the fact that they are greedy racists. Okay. But there's a moment where Joe confronts the Grand Wizard of the Klan to keep a leash on his underlings and the Grand Wizard makes a really uncomfortable point that the movie should be looking at far deeper. The Klan never sees themselves as the bad guy. We view them as the bad guys of the narratives because they're the bad guys objectively. But the Klan views themselves as the last line of defense from the crime and degradation that comes with the blurring of cultural lines. So, doesn't that make the Klan right?
The reason that they are attacking Joe is that the Irish Catholic is coming in and bringing crime with him. The Klan has taken it upon themselves to rid their home of crime. Yeah, they find that Joe is married to a Black Hispanic woman and they throw that against him too. But Joe really probably wouldn't have been on their radars if it hadn't been for the fact that he's a crime boss. From their perspectives, Joe is justifying all the years of bigotry and hatred that they have espoused. He's Exhibit A for the prosecution. Yet, we still root for Joe, despite the bloodbath that he leaves in his wake. He still is the tragic character. Emotionally, Joe is cathartic. He is someone we can emotionally relate to, despite the fact that --I hope --none of us are crime bosses. But Joe as an antihero is extremely problematic. We want him to win simply because he's a charming white male who exudes charisma.
So storytelling-wise, this is a really fun story that has a lot of content to cover. I enjoyed it because I went into it with very low expectations. But at the end of the day, intellectually, this movie has a lot to be desired.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.