We’re just a few weeks away from the tenth anniversary of Martin Scorsese winning his first Best Director Oscar (and, amazingly, his first Best Picture Oscar) for The Departed. The 2006 film is, technically, a gangster movie. But it’s also a crime drama, more in common with something like Heat than The Godfather, or even Scorsese’s finest hour, Goodfellas.
Jack Nicholson was a gangster in Boston, sure, but this was more about false identity and double crosses between cops and crooks. And yet, it’s the closest we’ve come to a successful gangster picture in almost fifteen years. The western has often been accused of being a dying genre, but these days the gangster movie seems to be sleeping with the fishes (I’m sorry). Ben Affleck is trying to reinvigorate the genre of fedoras and Tommy Guns with Live By Night, opening in wide release this weekend. But by all indications and the mounting pile of scathing reviews, this appears to be Affleck’s first true misfire as a director. As far as the gangster movie getting a less-than-stellar reception, well, he’s not alone these days.
In the years before The Departed, there were a handful of solid entries in the traditional gangster genre, namely Sam Mendes’ sophomore directing effort, Road to Perdition. The hyper-stylized story about a gangster father and his son was a tremendous entry into the genre, showing us a different side to Tom Hanks with a fresh, compelling take full of wonderful supporting performances from none other than Paul Newman, Jude Law, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and a young Daniel Craig. Who could have known it would be one of the last gasps of the genre?
Since 2006, the attempts at the gangster movie have been fewer and farther between, and the returns have been increasingly diminished. Ridley Scott’s American Gangster was decent, but minor. Michael Mann told the John Dillinger story in 2009 with Public Enemies, but even the great Mann couldn’t quite stick the landing. Public Enemies has its moments, but as a whole it’s a little too lifeless, a little muddled, and the wonderful period aesthetics overwhelmed an uninteresting narrative.
That same year, Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet managed to inject some life into the genre with a fresh perspective on the rise and fall of a career criminal. But it existed in the margins of the traditional genre. Fast forward to 2013, and the abysmal Gangster Squad, a fedora-laden speakeasy genre entry that felt at times like a parody of the genre. There have been some smaller, impressive works in recent years, films like Michael Shannon’s The Iceman, but most gangster movies have either fallen flat on their face or never happened at all.
Everyone who loves the genre has been clamoring for Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, a traditional gangster film with Robert De Niro and Al Pacino and (maybe) Joe Pesci. Hopefully is stays on schedule and begins shooting in February. John Travolta is set to play John Gotti in an upcoming biopic, but putting your faith in a successful Travolta film is a fool’s errand. Gangster movies are no longer hot commodities the way they once were. In the Golden Age of Hollywood, James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson defined the genre. The 70s saw Coppola and Scorsese put a new face on it. Imitators came and went following the success of Goodfellas and Casino. But these days nothing seems to be working.
What is it about the gangster movie that isn’t connecting with audiences and critics these days? It could be a number of things, starting with the dreaded and feared problem of cliche. Gangster Squad, Live By Night and, to a lesser extent, Public Enemies work with a checklist of tropes rather than try and tell a new story with a fresh perspective. Tommy Guns, check. Speakeasies, check. Dangerous moll, check. Fedoras and tough-talking hoods, check… Those are elements that define the genre, sure, but they don’t need to all exist int he same story, regardless of the story being told, without any weight or consequence. Familiarity can easily create boredom.
It’s a tough thing to balance cliches and create a compelling film, and for the gangster genre the cliches we all recognize create a world of excess that can overwhelm story. Take a look at the western, another genre consistently on death’s door, and how it’s managed to revive itself. It many cases it’s gone smaller (the Magnificent Seven remake notwithstanding. That’s its own star-fueled spectacle), and it’s mixed things up a little. Identifiers are still prevalent, but the stories have been stripped down – as in the case with Ti West’s In a Valley of Violence – the genre itself has been combined with another genre, like horror in the tremendous Bone Tomahawk, or the setting has been shifted in time – see: Hell or High Water. The gangster movie might need a minimalist approach to its standard story, or maybe it could even work within another setting or alongside another genre. Creativity is key to revival. Don’t tell the same stories in the same manner.
Perhaps modern audiences aren’t as excited to glorify killers and thieves as they rise to ultimate power these days. It might hit a little too close to home. But that’s not as clear cut, and it’s typically ignoring the final act of most gangster movies. Critics took issue with Goodfellas and Casino for their glorification of the lifestyle, but did they not see the final twenty minutes of either of those? With the rise to power there is almost always a fall, but maybe those first two acts are a turn off for moviegoers these days.
As we sit now, the gangster movie genre appears to be dying on the vine, with attempts to revive these stories continually falling short. But it’s never too late to bring these stories back, there just needs to be more creativity, the right story, and the right filmmaker behind the camera. That day will come again – maybe with Tom Hardy’s new Al Capone movie, whenever that gets here, or The Irishman – but it doesn’t seem that Affleck’s Live By Night is going to be that savior.