Gangster Thursday: A Murky Trip into the World of Genre
I saw Live by Night on Thursday. It’s not bad, but it’s not great either. It’s long, I’ll give it that. If you’re looking for value for money, then Live by Night certainly delivers on running time.
On the way home, me and my wife, Sam, worked out that there’s an interesting story buried at the heart of the movie. One which takes the gangster out of his natural environment and puts him someplace parochial. Somewhere small, southern fried and dusty. A hotbed of culture clashes and unsteady progress. There the plot can deal with violence, corruption and the social splinters in the heart of American society in a far more original way.
Only that wasn’t the movie Mr Affleck wanted to make. Basing his script on Dennis LeHane’s novel, he went full gangster. Irish and Italian mobsters, prohibition, gun fights, jail time, swell parties and girls, girls, girls. That’s not me being flippant, there are (sort of) three female leads in Live by Night.
The problem is that the gangster movie is a predictable beast by now. We’ve all seen a few of them, if they’re our kind of thing. We have our favourites. We know the rules. Which meant Affleck had an uphill battle on his hands from the start. Let’s put it this way, Sam has never seen a Godfather movie, but she knew almost exactly where the plot was going to go.
So, was Ben Affleck wrong to want to play gangster? Should I hold it against him? The man has made some great movies. Surely, he’s earned the right to dip into the toybox if he wants to, right? The Coen Brothers did their own version of The Ladykillers. Warren Beatty brought Dick Tracy back to life before comic book movies were ever really considered a genre. Kenneth Branagh remade Sleuth for some reason. Orson Welles voiced a transformer…okay, that one’s a little off topic, but it always surprises me.
I guess the reason I’m feeling so defensive and conflicted about this is because the question of originality in stories that shadow the classics can be applied to all genres. Including horror, where I’ve pitched my own tent. Horror has its tropes and clichés. You know it’s unlikely all the teenagers or backpackers are going make it to the end. You’re aware that, if there’s a rule about not opening a certain door or going to a certain place, then someone’s going to do exactly that. If there is a possessed little kid, then the odds are on that we’re going to meet a tired, spiritual person with their own demons. It’s all par for the course.
So, maybe the problem lies with the similarity of so many of the courses on offer. Or the length of those courses. Or perhaps some genre stories take too many mulligans when it comes to their plot. Okay, if I’m being honest, I’m not sure I really know enough about golf to pull this metaphor off.
Still, really, is genre such a bad thing? The best and brightest will always find a way to subvert it, allowing them to toy with expectation. Cabin in the Woods springs to mind. That and It Follows. Surely that means genre has its place. It’s a brilliant starting place, at the very least. Besides, it’s not like the inherent dangers in following the formula of genre have stopped Stephen King from releasing the odd tale with a B movie tint to it. Or look at a few years back, when Brian Lumley dug into Lovecraft’s world to build a place for Titus Crow. Was that really such a crime?
When you look at the genre stories on offer, they’re not all bad. The crime really comes from an artist deciding not to fully invest themselves in the work they’re offering an audience, no matter the format. Clint Eastwood has made some brilliant westerns through his career, but he used the genre to tell stories that have genuine heart to them. He wasn’t just retelling a story we all knew by heart. Really, no audience wants to feel like it’s being led down a well-worn path. You don’t want them looking down and seeing their own footprints in the snow.
So, by all means, use the tropes of genre for stories. I think the trick is to fully invest in whatever stories you’re trying to tell. Embrace them until your time with them is over. That way you’ll give them something personal. A spark of soul. People will pick up on that and appreciate it. If you’re lucky, it might even keep them coming back.
I just think, at the end of the day, no one wants to feel like they’re paying good money to watch someone play at being a gangster.