Live By Night is about a young man named Joe Coughlin who gets swept up in an Italian mob after he is found screwing around with his passionate love Emma, who is in a complicated relationship with the leader. From what I have seen in the movie, it drives a strong theme about how power drives a society and sometimes kills you or those you love or care about.
Or those who you love or care about.
While director Ben Affleck has helmed other films, his soul emerged from the writing desk for Live By Night to show brilliant parallels with social justice issues that happened almost a century ago to present day.
You can clearly see the theme of struggling with corrupt authority or other such powerful figures for the sake of social justice growing stronger as the plot continues to progress. For Joe, he loses Emma because he loved her and the mob teaches him a lesson. In return, Joe seeks his revenge by working with the mob. The irony of it all is that he is a policeman’s son and not much later, after he decides to join the mob, his dad shames him. But even Joe has his own struggles with participating in the mob. So much so that the audience witnesses painful expressions of agony over each person’s head he blows off.
Differences between a parent and child is reflected in other characters, too, such as in the choice to act for the sake of change rather than stay complacent. For example, Loretta is the daughter of a pastor and the mob sucks her into the middle of their problems. While on the train to pursue a possible acting career, Joe creates a situation where her trip is intercepted and she is drugged with heroin so he can get her dad’s attention. When she returns, she preaches about the sins of gambling and fornication and the need to repent. Later on, we discover her dad is muttering the same words as he walks from room to room. A scene reveals him whipping her in her private bedroom to cleanse the sin from her.
Meanwhile, in Joe’s own story, he falls in love again, this time with an African-American woman, Gracelia, who introduces him to her culture of expressing joy and dancing. She also challenges him to take a closer look at the potential of his two different selves. One is a person he can keep becoming and the other is who he truly is. Deep inside she knows what he will decide because she understands the person who he lets out when they are making love. But she is patient with the timing and lets him figure it out. It shows her inner strength, in contrast to giving an opinion to someone why what they are doing is wrong.
There’s a stark contrast to the revival meetings in the tent with all the signs stipulating their audiences to repent and draw close to God. While you can voice opinions, sometimes you must be willing to let the heart speak because sometimes that rings louder than a guilt trip. What I learned most in watching the film is that no one can live your life for you. Somehow you must create a balance of putting critical thought into your own experiences while you wrestle with your true feelings. Only then can you emerge as a strong voice in the world as you take confidence in who you are in your personal sufferings.
The film also felt a bit reminiscent of The Godfather trilogy, yet wrestled with its own issues that resonated well in a modern setting. It takes a deeper look into how far you are willing to go so that you survive personal circumstances, both immediate and local or futuristic and far away. What you decide to do today moves the future forward or hinders it, not only in your world, but in those who you affect around you.