"Live by Night" is a prohibition tale that takes a pragmatic liberal or libertarian view of life, sin, heaven, Christianity, and even the KKK. Maybe not race or the KKK.
"Live by Night" is a prohibition tale that takes a pragmatic liberal or libertarian view of life, sin, heaven, Christianity, and even the KKK. Maybe not race or the KKK. Written and directed by Ben Affleck, his character, Joe Coughlin, seems to take on the persona of a good criminal, who uses guns only to kill perceived bad people, or the KKK. But his character takes a detour before he gets to do that.
Coughlin: In 1917, I signed up to fight the Huns in France. Good men died all around me. I saw no reason for it. I swore if I came home I would never follow orders again. I left a soldier. I came back an outlaw.
It’s based on the novel by Dennis Lehane. Other Lehane novels have been made into the movies as well, including “Shutter Island” and “Mystic River.”
In it all, Affleck, as the main character, has no real faults other than the need to kill people who get in his way in Boston and Tampa. He is liberal in his use of the pistol.
Coughlin also lives with a black woman, as a symbol of opposition of slavery and the KKK. But as much as he opposes slavery and the KKK, he also opposes anything that restricts his freedom, his hedonistic lifestyle.
He returns from WWI to become a criminal. His father is the police chief. He steals from illegal poker games. His former life as a soldier has prepared him for the skills or killing ability necessary to become a criminal. It’s all really exciting, until it catches up with him.
In Boston, all of the crime family squabbling leads to lots of murder and “tit for tat” hits. It's the deadliest year in the history of Boston. Since he is the source of some of this, he is given an ultimatum and leaves New England for Florida.
He exits Boston and heads to Tampa, where he gets involved in the liquor trade once again. To make connections, he meets a cuban rum trader, and his sister, who is obviously not Cuban, Graciela, played by Zoe Saldano. She does not have a Cuban accent. Neither does she look Cuban.
The local police chief, Chief Figgis, played by Chris Cooper, meets Affleck, and his daughter, Loretta Figgers. She takes the train to Hollywood to start a new life in Hollywood after an agent promises her stardom. Coincidentally Affleck's brother is in Hollywood, a stunt man he says, and tracks her. She ends up as a prostitute, with lewd drug-addicted photos attached to her resume.
He starts a relationship with a Zoe Saldana, Graciela, as a symbol of his acceptance of blacks.
(There is some confusion in Saldana’s character, since she is the brother of someone who is obviously Cuban, and she does not speak a word of Spanish. She does not really look Cuban or even act the part).
Here are some Graciela quotes for Affleck:
The pawn and the king end up in the same box at the end of the game.
You cannot live unless there is something for which you would actually die: one of her father’s quotes.
If that’s the case, Coughlin seems to be willing to die for all of the liberal causes - acceptance of blacks by living with a black (Cuban) woman, and opposing the KKK in Tampa.
The depression came, and the Suarez Caughlin rum partnership does well, despite the banks and economy not doing well. Then the KKK comes knocking in the form of R.D. Figgis, effectively played by Matthew Mayer.
R.D.: This is what happens when Catholics try to sell liquor down here. He has a speech impediment.
Coughlin of the KKK: They are inbreds with 4th grade educations.
So starts Affleck’s crusade against racism.
It’s a popular theme in Hollywood and it’s selective morality. Do whatever you want, so long as you don’t offend racist perceptions. Be opposed to the KKK, and even link them to Christians and conservatives if you can.
R.D. is the brother of Chris Cooper’s wife, who we don't see. R.D. acts like he is insane, which is generally what liberals like Affleck think of conservatives.
R.D.: This man is a bootlegger and a fornicator with niggers. He is to be tarred and feathered.
R.D. attempts to extort money from Affleck, but for no reason other than he is being unreasonable.
This dialogue is for nothing other than demonstrating that the KKK, because they are racist, are also stupid. But the reality is far from this. There were members of the KKK everywhere, including Chicago. Some where even black businessmen, who became members for pragmatic reasons.
Coughlin meets with the Grand Wizard of the KKK, who manages a cigar making operation. He’s also a member of the Tampa Rotary Club.
Coughlin: Do you think we got to where we are by letting some inbred shit pickers muscle us?
Coughlin's compadre shoots him dead.
Chief Figgis says he's not going to sell out his brother, R.D., before Coughlin hands him pictures of Loretta as a drug addicted prostitute in Los Angeles.
Coughlin: She didn’t make it to Hollywood, she just made it to Los Angeles. He has pictures of Loretta, which is uses as leverage against R.D.
R.D.: They ain’t gonna end prohibition in a God-fearing country.
Thus, the link between Christianity and the KKK.
Coughlin: How much is Albert White paying you to shoot up my places (establishments)?
R.D.: You are a pestilence - you and your nigger whore (girlfriend) and your Dago friend - Tear off a piece of that nigger girl before I kill her.
The KKK comes to kill Coughlin at the hospital. His guys stop them, follow them, kill them all.
Coughlin: That spelled the end to the KKK in Tampa.
Cooper, the police chief, in all his compassion, whips his daughter while she bends over a bed. In contrast, we see Affleck, the compassionate liberal. His beautiful wife wants to marry him.
Graciela: Can I take your name?
Graciela is the good Christian woman. She’s not like those people who oppose drinking and gambling. She wants to give shelter to abandoned women in abandoned buildings she wants to buy.
The rise of Loretta (Elle Fanning)
Loretta emerges from her isolation and decides to only wear white, and be married only to Jesus Christ, and start a campaign against liquor and gambling in Tampa.
Thus starts Coughlin’s pragmatic campaign against Christianity. Coughlin has a difficult job. He wants to sell liquor, but has to get rid of the influence of an innocent woman, Loretta. He meets her at a camp meeting and tries to reason with her.
Loretta: Gambling destroys the spirit. One hears much of personal liberty. But when you’ve seen the barbarity of man and have been treated to personal doses, it is for the gambler to fritter away the gifts of God, using it for himself. Personal liberty is the liberty of murder, a seducer, a wolf.
A sheep fold seducer. How cheap is your virtue? “And they think to build a house of gambling on our waterfront.
Your good works are mitigated by your evil deeds. You can free yourself of that.
Coughlin: Your story is amazing.
The same can be said of fornication (it's like gambling and drinking).(If) People want to fornicate, they should be able to.
Loretta: And if they want to lie down with animals?
Coughlin: Do they? (He persists) (Actually, when given the opportunity, yes, they do). Do people want to lie down with animals?
Loretta: Some do. And your sickness will want to spread if.
Coughlin: I see no correlation between fornication and lying down with animals.
Loretta: There is a correlation across all sin. It is all against the wishes of God, therefore all equally offensive.
Coughlin wants her to stop talking against the casino. Here is his rationale:
The casino will produce jobs which will decrease the sinfulness of idle hands. He would even be willing to contribute to the church, or build a few.
Loretta: If God rewrites the Bible so that gambling is virtuous, I will refrain from speaking against it. Until then, we don’t get to pick our sins, Mr. Coughlin.
Coughlin achieves another moral victory: He encounters a law-abiding Tampa businessman who opposes gambling and won't invest in the casino.
Businessman: We’re not going to invest in the casino. We are the landed white gentry in this country, which we have no plans to carve off a strip of this country and hand it over to Catholics, Jews, darkies, or Dagos, that we have gone to great pains to break and colonize,
Coughlin: All those people - the Negro - on whose back you took great pains to break this country -the immigrants who came over hear and worked their fingers to the fucking bone. All believed it when you told them you could get ahead. And one day, and I may not live to see it, they’re gonna figure it out. I tell you what. I’d hate to fucking be you standing between those people and what they deserve.
Again, Coughlin is better than the whites in Tampa, all of the business people, because all business people in Tampa are racists and members of the KKK and intolerant. In other words, they are not like Coughlin.
Prohibition ends. Coughlin meets with Loretta at a coffee house.
(It’s seems at this point appropriate to explore whether Coughlin's brother in Los Angeles, could have prevented Loretta from falling into unsavory characters, or if he actually used the circumstances to benefit himself and his ability to get what he wanted, which is a more favorable gambling and rum trading conditions. It does not seem that Loretta knows this).
Coughlin says he has photographs of her.
Loretta: We’re all going to hell.
Loretta does not fault Coughlin, for what reason we don't know. She confesses that she does not seem to know why she wears white, or off white. She also does not know what heaven is or even where it is.
Loretta: This is heaven. Because we fucked it all up. I don’t know if there is a God, but I hope there is and I hope he’s kind. That would be swell. You seem not to despair. You have no secrets.
Affleck: I have my wife.
Her father is blind with rage that men touched his daughter they way he touched his wife. He goes around the house whispering repent.
Coughlin gets the bad news: Loretta Figgis cut her own throat yesterday. His friend's description: She did it at home in the chief’s home. She did it herself. She’s got moxie.
News headline: Death of a Madonna.
Graciela's brother's philosophy: We are not our brother’s keeper. In fact, it’s an insult to think that we are.
Eventually, Coughlin builds the women’s home in memory of his wife. He has a mixed race son, who reminds him of his wife.
We see Loretta’s father, Chief Figgis in anguish. In a blind rage, he shoots randomly into the front of Affleck’s home, killing his wife. Coughlin grabs a gun and runs out into the yard, killing . But by that time, it’s too late. The damage is done. His wife is dead. His act of self-defense would also probably be covered by the Castle doctrine in modern day Florida, since he defended his home against an attack in his front yard.
My son asks me, “Where is heaven.”
I respond, “This is heaven.”
Here is one plot description: “Taking fatherly advice is not in Joe Coughlin’s nature. Instead, the WWI vet is a self-proclaimed anti-establishment outlaw, despite being the son of the Boston Police Deputy Superintendent. Joe’s not all bad, though; in fact, he’s not really bad enough for the life he’s chosen. Unlike the gangsters he refuses to work for, he has a sense of justice and an open heart, and both work against him, leaving him vulnerable time and again—in business and in love.”
Affleck has a sense of justice that includes killing people and using an innocent girl to get what he wants, even though it destroys her life. He is the practical Christian hedonist: He treats blacks well and accepts them; he opposes the KKK and kills them off; his solid girlfriend even acts like a Christian and wants to help homeless women. The only real truth in all of this seems to come for Loretta, when she speak of the sovereignty of God in relation to drinking and gambling.
L: There is a correlation across all sin. It is all against the wishes of God, therefore all equally offensive.
Affleck is right in that drinking or even gambling don’t keep us from going to heaven or being good. But we can’t be good without Christianity, or more specifically, Jesus. Our goodness is not enough.
We don’t want to help homeless women just to be good people. There is no practical reason for doing that. We do that because Jesus was good and acted like God on earth. He even asked someone why they called him "good teacher." He corrected him. He's not just good. He's God.
He also offers forgiveness for people like Affleck, who use people like Loretta to get what they want, and for people like Loretta, who have done things they are ashamed of.
It’s not possible to present true goodness in our culture without acknowledging the source of that goodness.
© 2018 Larry Ingram
Based in St Louis,
Larry Ingram writes about the news media, movies and culture, as well as on topics like race, privilege, Christianity, religious expression and tolerance.
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