Expect to see Leonardo DiCaprio playing Joseph Coughlin in a theater near you. Can’t give you a time frame. It all depends how long it takes DiCaprio and his Appian Way Productions to fulfill the movie rights for ”Live By Night.”
After all, DiCaprio played federal marshal Teddy Daniels in another of Lehane’s novels, “Shutter Island.” But he lost out to Sean Penn in “Mystic River” and to Ben Affleck in “Gone Baby Gone,” two other Lehane novels turned into movies.
“Live By Night” has all the elements necessary to continue in Lehane’s string of novels adapted for the screen. Like the others, it has a New England flair, although the bulk of it centers in Florida and Cuba.
Coughlin, the son of a Boston police bigwig, makes the other side of the law his profession. He does time, rises through the ranks and eventually becomes a Prohibition-era rum-running king in Florida. Along the way he loves twice, almost dies twice and kills twice.
He’s a gangster in a vicious business, but it’s the soft side of him that gives “Live By Night” its underlying theme. And it’s the soft side that finds him facing death and the crumbling of his empire.
A perfect role for DiCaprio.
Lehane writes with a keen sense of character, sprinkled with a necessary dose of action, all molded into a gripping story. No wonder his novels get grabbed by movie-makers. John Grisham’s do, too, but all too often Grisham’s novels read like screenplays-in-the-making, with insufficient attention to character-building.
“Live By Night” portrays Coughlin in such favorable light the reader almost wants to overlook the men he orders killed, the crimes he commits and the outlandishly opulent life he leads thanks to his illegal operations.
After all, how many gangsters forgive a childhood friend whose backstabbing led to two years in prison? And refuse to take down a small family-run rum business, or take out a revivalist woman whose preaching derailed plans for legalized gambling?
That’s Joe Coughlin for you, incongruous as it may sound, a compassionate mobster.
His two loves certainly add sexual spice to “Live By Night.” One he beds despite her boyfriend being the kingpin of Boston crime. The other becomes his partner in crime and, in true “Live By Night” fashion, uses proceeds from their ventures to establish foundations to help the underprivileged.
Lehane has an earthy way of telling his tale. He writes about what Coughlin sees in the eyes of others. And, through Coughlin, he examines the meaning of life and death and questions the existence of God and the hereafter.
That’s the stuff that gives his writing substance. It’s also the stuff you probably won’t see in the screen version unless, that is, DiCaprio does a lot of thinking out loud.
Lee Coppola has been among other things, a prosecutor, an award-winning print and TV journalist, a dean of St. Bonaventure University Journalism School and an inductee into the Buffalo Broadcasting Hall of Fame.
Live By Night
By Dennis Lehane
401 pages, $27.99