Common Boston: Dennis Lehane on Screen

Live by Night

By Sean Rogers 

He knows how to pace a story. He isn’t a great novelist. He’s a craftsman, but every once in a while it’s nice to read something long without boring us to death before we get to page 50.” —Roberto Bolaño on Thomas Harris’ Hannibal

There’s a shootout at the end of Live by Night, Ben Affleck’s vainglorious adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s 2012 Prohibition-era novel, which embodies both the virtues and vices of Affleck’s direction and Lehane’s source material. Joe Coughlin, Affleck’s doughy outlaw-for-hire, has come to an opulent Tampa hotel to confront the Boston-based Italian Mafioso for whom he’s created a tropical empire, and who has decided to prematurely terminate their contract. Affleck’s crew infiltrates the premises from below, streaming out of the rum-running tunnels that burrow through the city, riddling the out-of-towners with machine-gun spray. It’s not particularly kinetic or exciting as either action filmmaking or plot advancement, but it’s solidly set up and easy to understand. It’s the work of craftsmen all around: proficient, but anonymous.

Affleck has that polished blandness in common with his fellow Bostonian Lehane, which is maybe why the two have found such a snug fit, both here and in the more circuitous Gone Baby Gone (2007), Affleck’s directorial debut. A serviceable technician such as Affleck meets Lehane’s books on their own level: the director of such frictionless exercises as The Town (2010) and Argo (2012) possesses a skill set perfectly calibrated for the better class of airport bestsellers. That may sound dismissive, but I mean it with a sense of relief similar to that with which Roberto Bolaño read Thomas Harris: how nice to see something well-paced, for a change.

Like Harris, Lehane is a dab hand at plotting often grisly thrillers that move at a clip, are styled with impersonal finesse, dole out mysteries that gesture towards profundity by ginning up extreme moral dilemmas involving pedophilia, child murder, racial prejudice, and so on, and presenting it with a sheen of literary realism rather than pulpy exploitation. Also like Harris, and unlike the Dan Browns or Lee Childs of the paperback racks, Lehane has had his books become prestigious Hollywood properties, adapted into a string of high-profile, big-name, awards-friendly projects. (Though his silver-screen record is spottier, with his class-conscious New England eruptions of violence, Stephen King is even closer to Lehane’s sensibility than Harris.) Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River arrived in 2003, followed by Gone Baby Gone, Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island (2010), and now Live by Night; Michaël R. Roskam’s The Drop (2014) is the only outlier to date, an independent production of Lehane’s sole effort at feature-film screenwriting (he’s also penned scripts for HBO’s The Wire and Boardwalk Empire). The earlier Lehane adaptations have their boosters—especially among partisans of Eastwood, whose Mystic River aims for the operatically tragic but still scans as merely overblown to this viewer (give me Clint’s self-consciously simplified, working-class Motown in Gran Torino [2008] over his wannabe-Shakespearean Beantown any day)—but despite the sometimes consummate craft of these films, their flaws and flimsy conceits remain consistent with the more recent and more easily dismissed efforts. Still, it’s a body of work that holds together, for better and for worse—and Live by Night helps illustrate why filmmakers both capable and more so keep getting drawn to the author’s obviously marketable material, despite its by-the-numbers conception.

Lehane is careful to always introduce an element of novelty to what could otherwise be rote fictions, some welcome twist that piques and (perhaps) holds our interest. In Live by Night, it’s the transposition of the familiar ’30s gangster yarn to the sunnier climes of Florida, which Robert Richardson renders in the film as a sunshine haze of mauve, pink, and amber in contrast to the genre’s typical greyscale urban jungles. Affleck’s Coughlin, persona non grata in dingy old Boston after trying to lam it with Irish boss Albert White’s moll (Sienna Miller, laying the old country on thick), strikes a deal with the rival Italians to shape up their rum operations down in Tampa, and vindictively cuts off White’s northbound supply in the bargain. The gangland power struggle occurs amid humid fronds and verandas, not cobblestones and tenements; not Irish or Italians, but cultured Cubans (including Zoe Saldana and R&B star Miguel) control the illicit liquor trade, so hooch gets swilled to the sounds of red-hot rumba in juke joints rather than in society ballrooms or basement speakeasies.

Live by Night’s milieu swap-up is only the most obvious of Lehane and his assorted cine-adaptors’ glibly clever tweaks to generic convention. Affleck’s Gone Baby Gone, which repeats the endangered-child motif of Mystic River—here with a pre-schooler abducted from her drug-muling mother (Amy Ryan, laying the foul-mouthed Southie on thick) and the clock ticking down before God-knows-what befalls the child at the hands of the dealers and pedophiles rampant in her rundown community—splits the traditional lone-knight gumshoe hero into a duo: Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck, looking authentically confused) and Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan, looking bored), whose roots run deep into the working class (realism!). Shutter Island, in which twitchy federal agent Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) searches an island asylum in Boston Harbor for the firebug who killed his wife, grafts combat-induced PTSD onto a Caligari-style madhouse murder story. The Drop, meanwhile, traffics in a decidedly less baroque but no less glib variety of realism—the clumsy-amateur crime-movie trope—in its tale of a dive bar run by heavy-lidded Bob (Tom Hardy) and small-timer Marv (James Gandolfini) which doubles as a temporary “drop” for big hauls of ill-gotten cash, making it a tempting target for inept heists.

In most of the above cases, as well as Mystic River’s masculine melodramatics, source novels and subsequent films alike evince a flair for local colour, an attention to the specifics of Boston geography (or, in the case of Live by Night, those of Ybor City, “the Harlem of the South”), a flavourfully rubbed-raw dialect, and a cognizance of cultural divides that make them seem divertingly different from the generic norm. (The exception is the cinematized The Drop, which relocates Lehane’s Boston-set short story to Brooklyn, and in doing so loses much in the way of specificity.) At least as much as the author’s own background, however, the Beantown provenance of Lehane’s stories (Live by Night included) and their tone of this-is-how-it-is-ness is derived wholesale from The Friends of Eddie Coyle, both George V. Higgins’ tough, eagle-eyed novel, and Peter Yates’ laudable 1973 cinematic adaptation of same.

The difference is that where the Yates film renders its plebian underworld milieu as dingily (but still dangerously) matter-of-fact, the Lehane movies brandish their self-consciously anti-romantic textures as realist bona fides—insinuating to their audiences that they are being vouchsafed a glimpse of something exotic and out of the ordinary in the films’ ostentatious ordinariness. (To witness a non-Lehanian version of same, take a look—or don’t—at Andrew Dominik’s insufferably pretentious Killing Them Softly [2012], taken from Higgins’ 1974 novel Cogan’s Trade.) In Shutter Island, Scorsese seems like a gleeful tourist still on vacation in Massachusetts after The Departed (2006), taking in the whole seaboard with a wide-angle lens. Eastwood’s camera in Mystic River lingers over three-decker houses bunched together in rickety rows, often swooping down from on high or titling up and away, paying a visitation to the neighbourhood rather than residing within it (while the cops in the film pay lip service to gentrification, Mystic River itself enacts a kind of yuppiefication of those same streets, occupying, prettifying, and ennobling them from without). By contrast, Affleck in Gone Baby Gone seems embedded. He knows where to scout the right quarries, diners, and bars in order to convey a sense of an urban working class besieged by joblessness and poverty, and how to dress sets so they look legitimately tawdry: laundry piled just so in Amy Ryan’s sad apartment; porno mags stacked high during a meet with a dealer.

Lehane movies recognize that these markers of authenticity also quietly delineate class differences. The way Mystic River divvies up its protagonists between lower, middle, and upper middle classes serves as a model: small-business owner and ex-con Jimmy Markum (Sean Penn) has beat the odds and gone straight, but his need for vengeance after the murder of his eldest daughter threatens to drag him back into the lowest rank of criminals (such as his brothers-in-law) or hapless victims, like one-time buddy Dave Boyle (Tim Robbins), a survivor of childhood sexual abuse who’s never been able to overcome his past, and is thus consigned to stew in it. Sean Devine (Kevin Bacon) is the upwardly mobile member of their childhood clique, a homicide detective trying to shake off the squalidness of his old neighbourhood in his new life. This differentiation is always present in Affleck’s films as well: in the way Sienna Miller’s new immigrant in Live by Night resents the high hat she gets from Joe’s stiff-collared father (Brendan Gleeson), in the sneers that greet Gone Baby Gone’s Kenzie when he noses around a rough-and-tumble bar. Live by Night also maps class differences onto cultural ones, with WASP investors shying away from aligning themselves with Cubans and papists during the planning of a casino; the protagonists of The Drop and Shutter Island, meanwhile, regard unseen gentrifiers (like the ones in The Drop turning the parish church of Hardy’s Bob into condos) and patrician eggheads (like Ben Kingsley’s smugly lecturing doctor in Shutter Island) with as much (if not more) antipathy as they do arriviste Chechen gangsters (“Chechnyans,” in Marv’s parlance) or ex-Nazi scientists (Max von Sydow) plying their sinister trade on the damned inhabitants of an island asylum.

The trouble is that by schematizing class and cultural identity so thoroughly, Lehane movies risk tipping over into stark caricature. Live by Night often feels like a wish-fulfilment scenario for modern-day liberals, with its lily-white hero spanking the Klan and being welcomed into a vibrantly multiracial community—asked whether his lover Graciela (Zoe Saldana) is “a nigger or a spic,” Coughlin replies, “She’s both,” and blows his inquisitor away. (Take that, historical racism!) Just as offensively pandering, the opening of Gone Baby Gone commingles fiction and documentary, with actually and ostentatiously poor residents captured on camera as a tracksuit-clad Casey Affleck strolls through the scene, the movie star borrowing credibility from his abject surroundings; as the camera, from across the room, gawps at the sight of a bar patron wiping spittle from his trach, the scene becomes truly opportunistic. The presumption is that simply filming the dispossessed means you’ve said something about them and their circumstances, permitting the celebrity performers to carry on with their impersonations of what those lives look like.

It’s those very performers, however, who most make Lehane movies seem so cartoonish. There’s hardly an actor who doesn’t visibly relish the chance to simultaneously slum and shine in these roles, playing up the Boston accent and attitude and the trappings of working-class life until it all seems like a parody fit for late-night sketch comedy. (Two exceptions: Eli Wallach, in a quick Mystic River scene, and Ben Affleck’s go-to bad guy Matthew Maher as a child molester in Baby and a Klansman in Night, give polar-opposite performances—one rumpled and understated, the other B-movie villainous—but both are in control in a way their colleagues are not.) Ben Affleck in Live by Night is laughably clenched, his Batman bulk floating under yards of white linen suit, making him resemble an extra from Bugsy Malone (1976); Tom Hardy is likewise goofy in The Drop, mumbling, pouting, and waddling through his part (one pictures a script direction for Hardy’s character: “withdraw stoically into the background”). Ed Harris hams it up as a cop with a vendetta in Gone Baby Gone, as does Penn as the obscenely suffering father in Mystic River; given license to emote without restraint, these actors create a portrait of the Boston Catholic as a creature little removed from an animal state. It’s easier to forgive Shutter Island its broad strokes than the others, given that it’s narrated through the viewpoint of a man ultimately revealed to be insane (which makes Elias Koteas’ mugging as a scarred pyromaniac understandable, if not bearable, by film’s end); DiCaprio still pulls his fair share of faces, but it’s the film’s stylistic backflips that really push it into the realm of cartoons. Not quite as buoyant as a Frank Tashlin movie, the story’s lunatic logic and Scorsese’s strenuous exuberance make Shutter closer to a live-action Tex Avery Droopy short, wall to wall with ridiculous action, over-the-top takes, and a doggedly determined hero up against implacable forces.

If the men in these movies are cartoons, the women are props: cardboard creations meant to reinforce the behaviour of their swaggering partners, or else serve as their feeble conscience, easily batted away. In The Drop, Noomi Rapace plays damaged goods in need of protection; Live by Night has Saldana as Joe Coughlin’s backbone, Dakota Fanning’s holy roller as a sign of the innocence he corrupts, and Sienna Miller as, first, idol of worship, then fallen woman; Marcia Gay Harden as Dave Boyle’s wife in Mystic, who mops up the blood he swears he spilled in self-defence, is a craven mouse of a woman whom her cousin, Jimmy Markum’s wife (Laura Linney), ends up despising for betraying her man. Monaghan’s Angie Gennaro in Gone gets the worst of it though, a mere placeholder who is only present in order to stand on the sidelines, biding her time until she can disapprove of Kenzie’s actions at a crucial moment, the better to underline an already pretty blatant moral dilemma.

In that instance, Kenzie must decide whether to return a child to her rightful but neglectful home, or let her remain with the comfortably bourgeois couple who’ve scooped her up. Fraught choices such as this occur in each of the films, purporting to possess profound philosophical depth: Can Teddy Daniels live with the knowledge of what really happened to his wife and his kids? Did Dave Boyle do what everyone thinks he did? Can Tom Hardy find love, or Ben Affleck redemption? Sheesh. I’m simplifying a bit, of course: Mystic River at least gestures at larger concerns about how institutionalized abuse can rot away a community, and its howling, blindly retributive vengeance, in the wake of the US invasion of Iraq, echoes strongly down through the years since. But when the questions these films pose get resolved and their mysteries are laid bare, the revelations, while often legitimately surprising—as when it’s revealed why Bob is so strange, or why Teddy has visions, or what Dave has done, or what Coughlin and Kenzie never quite saw—never quite mean much of anything; the portentously signalled significance swirling around Lehane’s manufactured enigmas evaporates as soon as their tidy answers arrive.

“I don’t care about the end,” as Coughlin says of his power struggles in Tampa, “it’s about the game.” A Lehane movie does set a pretty good game in motion, but there’s rarely much there at the end. But if great—or, at least, competent—filmmakers are going to keep coming back to these books, surely there’s something in them to value, or at least enough to hope that something in them will be developed more fully in future adaptations. An intimate acquaintance with vibrant settings not often depicted, an actual reckoning with class in America and an attention to the circumstances in which the working poor live, an efficient delivery of a suspenseful plot—sooner or later these elements will add up, and one of these movies will work. (It would be interesting if James Gray, another big-city regionalist, could make something from one of Lehane’s books—but let him be.) Until then, there’s the coda to Mystic River—the only moment in any of these movies where meaning is uncertain, almost indecipherable. Penn’s Markum has killed the wrong man, but his wife insists that what he did was right, and the community files out onto the street to watch a parade—as though Markum’s bloodshed had contributed to some ancient rite. Here, the moral currents that Lehane’s story has traced entwine in a knot, the simple answers to what’s right and what’s just no longer even seeming to matter in the face of such clannish banding together, such renunciation of soul-searching and moral niceties. Nothing in any of the other Lehane films has matched the moral murkiness of Mystic’s conclusion—but, as per Bolaño, at least each of them (even Live by Night) has the small blessing of not boring us to death.