Live by Night [2016]

The 1920s are defined in the modern Western imagination by the Volstead Act, Prohibition, and the  criminal underworld it created. The reason is partially that the most successful and most powerful bootleggers of the age wanted it that way. Al Capone, for example, was basically a public figure as a bootlegger. Bootleggers have a unique advantage in the telling of their tales: history is basically on their side viz-a-viz their basic criminal activity. Narcotics, prostitution, armed robbery, gambling are all more-or-less tainted by abuse and human degradation, while having a dram of whiskey or a glass of the finest red wine after a hard day’s work is practically mandatory for huge swathes of the population. Famously, when asked of his plans at the end of Prohibition, Eliot Ness, the most famous foe of bootleggers, the scourge of the underworld, the leader of the “Untouchables” said “I think I’ll have a drink”. Checkmate on that moral argument.

The foe they really fell afoul of to end up sequestered with “real criminals” was the Hays Production Code, drafted in the summer of 1929. The films that were made after this, lead by The Public Enemy (1931) create the myth of the gangster, burying to any significant exploration of the underlying question of alcohol’s morality, and studiously avoiding any critique of the systemic forces of consumption that powered the whole edifice. The Production Code requires that the agent of any significant villainy fall victim to justice in some form or another, making it functionally impossible for the gangster to ever win and hence enforcing a monolithic story structure across the genre. Somehow or another the story designer needs to build in a rise and then a fall, and the most expedient and effective tool they found was to have the paranoia and ambition necessary to survive the early stages of a career be the poison of the late career. The original template for this is Shakespeare’s Richard III, in which Richard dooms himself via a domino-chain of events by condemning the fairly-innocent Buckingham. Shakespeare, of course, was allowed other kinds of villains. The classic story of the gangster is thus one of eventual organisational implosion fuelled by purges of lieutenants, loyal or otherwise, allowing The Law to come in and mop up.

Over the past twenty years, really properly beginning with The Sopranos we’ve been experimenting with un-demonising the gangster, trying to understand their psychology and appreciate their virtues, such as they are. Even there, however, we have that final scene in The Sopranos whose meaning could well be Tony’s death, and more recently in Breaking Bad, having ridden the rise and fall of unreliable servants and paranoid organisations, Walter White eventually gets what’s coming to him. Even Barksdale and Marlo from The Wire end up out, even as the machine they were part of rolls on unimpeded. I’ve often wondered whether the reason McCauley breaks all his rules and goes back is a vestigial plot move from the days of the code. There must be a tonne of creative agents sitting in their writing chairs trying to understand how to tell the story of the moral bootlegger, and at some point about two years ago, Ben Affleck decided he’d found the way.

Live by Night covers an approximately 10-year period in the career of Joe Coughlin, whose catch-phrase seems to be “I’m not a gangster”. After a lengthy preamble, he sets up as the monopoly supplier in Ybor in Florida. The conventional story of a gangster muscling in on another’s turf would focus on that obvious conflict, bringing to mind the best line from The Untouchables [1987]: “He pulls a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue! That’s the Chicago way, and that’s how you get Capone!” At first, it appears that’s going to be his plan, as he’s been sent explicitly because of his personal vendetta, established in the preamble. Instead, they reserve their major villain for interludes and vignettes, tamping-down rather than fanning the flames of vengeance; by the time he rolls around again near the end of the film I’d just about forgotten who he was. Instead Coughlin’s story revolves around winning over the Cuban local population and hence running afoul of the KKK. It’s certainly a novel approach, but after an arresting introduction to the KKK’s modus-operandi, the war which would occupy the whole activity in most movies is passed over in a montage of the after-effects. They move then swiftly on to another kind of foe, an evangelical preacher who capsizes the legalisation of gambling in the district – Coughlin here takes the high road, preferring not to murder a relative innocent. In the logic of the film however, it is she who has transgressed and is therefore duly eliminated. The idea in every scene, especially in one toe-curlingly cringeworthy encounter with a banker, is to show Coughlin as the moral man placed in an immoral situation. It’s a 5-hour long argument that we’re defined by our hearts, rather than by our actions.

The problem is that the film ends up abandoning all the tried and true story mechanisms and scenes that have been an evolving part of the genre. It’s inevitable that films trying to do new (or at least highly unusual) things won’t be successful, but this film just feels ill-considered at every turn. Coughlin’s morality, for example, is never explored, so his decisions are opaque from inside the fiction and hence make sense only from this external objective argument. His divergence from the typical cultural habits of his upbringing is never explained and there’s never a hint of internal conflict or uncertainty that might make it an interesting character decision, for all that it does generate plenty of plot. Just what makes him different enough that he can fall in love with a Cuban could have been a fascinating angle to explore. Similarly, while the KKK are summarily executed, there’s no sense that their racism has an economic motive, or how that interacts with criminality, ground that was scouted in Season 1 of Boardwalk Empire, but where plenty of interesting aspects remain to be revealed. The doubts of the preacher who derails his gambling strategy are touched on in a  single scene, but as an epilogue to the action it lacks any dramatic punch.

As a result of this drive to make the hero the moral centre while being unable to really focus or tackle any moral issues from the inherent morality of bootlegging down to the criminally-inspired racism of the KKK, this film is a catastrophic mix of sanctimonious, plodding and cliched. It also suffers by having gender politics straight out of the era it depicts. When Argo won best picture at the Academy Awards a few years ago it definitely didn’t deserve it, but I conversely felt that Affleck had been robbed by not winning best director. In that film he took a small tale and ratcheted up the tension to breaking point, seamlessly and adroitly splicing together the different strands into a film that had me on the edge of my seat. The direction here is unrecognisable. Can’t win them all I suppose, but based on his track record I think this film is the aberration in his oeuvre, which is otherwise pretty solid. It’s nothing near as bad as the worst films of the last couple of years, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Contemplating Existence [2014] and Victor Frankenstein [2015], but it’s by a long way the worst film so far of 2017 for me.

As a side and final note: I’m getting pretty sick of seeing Zoe Saldana being so criminally and flagrantly under-used – it’s just about as bad as seeing Naomie Harris’s name on a poster these days! Better than Out of the Furnace, but that is a low bar indeed. This is a 2-star film, 4/10 on IMDb, but I’m taking off half a star for wasting her; Sienna Miller and Elle Fanning aren’t exactly given star-turns either, but at least they get something to do.

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