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A Review of Live by Night (2016) and the Current State of the American Gangster Movie
#1
Sometimes bad things happen to good filmmakers; that’s the best way I can describe Ben Affleck’s Live by Night (2016). Affleck’s period gangster movie starts off good enough, especially with a short montage of gangland assassinations which includes a cameo of Affleck favorite Titus Welliver getting shot in the back of the head while in a barber chair. Caught in a prohibition-era Boston gang war between Irish gangster Albert White (Robert Glenister) and Sicilian gangster Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone), Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck) detests organized crime, and would just prefer to stay an unorganized criminal. 

Thought Coughlin can’t stay away from the establishment of organized crime for long, as Mafia boss Pescatore plans to inform his gangland rival of Joe’s confusingly public affair with his wife, Emma Gould (Sienna Miller). Before he can leave town with Emma, she lures him into a trap where White viciously beats Joe, and Emma, we are told, is inconsequentially killed. Being defeated by Pescatore, White flees to Florida to re-establish his rum running business. That’s when Joe decides to join forces with Pescatore and is selected to stretch his rum running operations into the South to with compete White, prompting Joe to take revenge against him.

That’s where the mess of Live by Night begins. What confuses me, is that Joe is reluctant to become a gangster, but as soon as he just decides to become one out of spite, he is automatically put in charge of the Mafia’s smuggling operations in Tampa; there is no rising thought the ranks with this movie. The confusion doesn’t stop there. As soon as Joe sets up shop in Tampa, he instantly clashes with the local chapter of the Klu Klux Klan. The most interesting plot of Live By Night (there are many) is tossed aside in the first 40 minutes of the movie with the quick decimation of the Klan in a series of gangland style assassinations. I couldn’t have been the only one who wanted to see an entire feature film based on the first part of this movie.

But the sins of Live by Night don’t stop there; the majority of the cast is wasted. Affleck shouldn't have been cast in the lead role. Besides being too old, Affleck is obviously buffed up for the next Batman movie and is oddly misshapen in every suit that he wears; to the point where he's a walking triangle. Dressing gangsters/criminals in clothes that don't fit isn't unprecedented. It was done to Paul Muni playing Tony Comonte in Scarface (1932) to make the character look subhuman, and the hulking Sterling Hayden barley fits into his suit playing Dix Handley in The Asphalt Jungle (1950). But while those examples were done purposely, I don't think Affleck's unflattering wardrobe choices in Live By Night were.

It doesn’t get much better for the rest of the cast; Zoe Saldana's talent is squandered, Brendan Gleeson is unfortunately quickly tossed aside, Sienna Miller plays her part well, Chris Cooper is solid (as usual), Elle Fanning's role is confusingly useless, Robert Glenister as Irish gang boss Albert White is fantastic, and frankly, he deserves his own gritty and realistic 1920s Irish gangster film, Remo Girone is a snore and should have been recast, Chris Messina is good, and lastly Max. Casella,"Benny" from The Sopranos, basically plays "Benny" from The Sopranos, but in the 1920s

The most confusing casting choice is the admission of Joe’s brother, who left Boston to become a Hollywood screenwriter. The character is mentioned soo frequently through the story, that one would think that he would eventually make an appearance (Scott Eastwood was actually cast for the role), but the only thing we get to see of Joe’s brother is his name in the credits of a movie Joe sees during the fourth act (Bonus High Sierra (1941) when Affleck is outside of the theater). 

Now, Live by Night wasn’t all bad. The change of scenery from the slums of Boston to the cigar factories of Florida did me good; we don’t have enough gangster movies that take place in the South. Again, the first 40 minutes is a solid gangster movie, and should just be shut off after that. 

It seems for the past decade that the American Gangster movie has been struggling, with brief moments of quality. We had a brief surge with high caliber Irish gangster movies with Scorsese’s The Departed (2006) and the underrated Kill the Irishman (2011). We’ve had auteurs Ridley Scott and Michael Mann contribute to the genre with American Gangster (2007) and Public Enemies (2009).Then the gangster movie got political and mirrored the dismal economic climate with Andrew Dominick’s unappreciated Killing Them Softly (2012). The same year we got a superb hillbilly bootlegger/gangster movie with Lawless (2012). I thought the genre would only get better with Black Mass (2015) and Legend (2015) coming out, but they just contributed to the sharp decline of the genre. The stock in quality gangster movies seems to have bottomed out with the release of Live By Night. The future of the genre also looks shaky as we have Kevin Connolly’s The Life and Death of John Gotti (since this writing renamed Gotti) and Sylvester Stallone’s Gregory Scarpa biopic on the horizon. 

The most disconcerting news to the future of the genre is that it took Martin Scorsese, who ushered in a fourth cycle of gangster movies with the release of Goodfellas (1990) and his follow up of Casino (1995), over a decade to get his newest contribution to the genre, The Irishman, made. It’s disappointing that a caliber director like Scorsese had that much trouble getting a gangster movie into production.

But for all the doom and gloom I’ve been toting, I think the genre will eventually bounce back. I believe the gangster genre is a highly cyclical one, and we are just at the tail end of a fourth cycle. 

The first cycle started with the quick release of Underworld (1927), Little Caesar (1931), The Public Enemy (1931), and Scarface (1932). It ends twofold with the dawn of the Hayes code with the FBI’s focus on Depression Era “Public Enemies” like John Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd, and the subject of the gangster movie shifting from the career of the gangster to the social ills that created him in the first place.

You can see the shifts from urban gangsters to rural bank robbers with Humphrey Bogart’s Dillinger-esque character Duke Mantee in The Petrified Forrest (1936), James Cagney switching sides of the law in G-Men (1935), and the release of Dillinger (1945). The class and social issues that spawned the gangster can be seen in Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), Dead End (1937), and Invisible Stripes (1939). You certainly had films that paid homage to the early "classic" films towards the end of the first cycle, like Raoul Walsh’s The Roaring Twenties (1939). 

The second cycle starts with the beginning of the Film Noir genre, where the gangster retreats to the background, but is still prominent in films like Kiss of Death (1947), Key Largo (1948), and White Heat (1949). You can see this start to happen in certain first cycle movies like Bullets or Ballots (1936) and King of the Underworld (1939). 

I would argue the seeds of the third cycle were planted with Blast of Silence (1961) and Murder, Inc (1960), again bringing the gangster (or hitman in these cases) character to the forefront, but was saved by and surged with the release of The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather: Part II (1974). As the 1970s came to an end and the 80s began, the American gangster film started to pay homage to the “classic” period with a remake of Scarface (1983), and Sergio Leone’s Prohibition epic Once Upon a Time in America (1984).

The genre then started a fourth cycle with the release of the documentary style authenticity of Goodfellas and Casino, which completely influence the genre into the new millennium with the release of The Sopranos.
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#2
Nice write up. LIVE BY NIGHT has been playing lately on HBO and I keep meaning to watch it out of morbid curiosity.
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#3
The biggest issue with the film is that Affleck refuses to allow any ambiguity towards his character--he's totes a good guy. I mean, sure, he's gotta do bad shit, but he totally mercs a racist.

WHAT AN ANTI-HERO.
"Why did she do it?"
"Why are you the fucking Police?"

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#4
(05-05-2018, 01:03 AM)Judas Booth Wrote: Nice write up.  LIVE BY NIGHT has been playing lately on HBO and I keep meaning to watch it out of morbid curiosity.

I appreciate it! I'd give Live by Night a go - it's like a band-aid, you jut gotta rip it off.
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