Many low-budget films share a common problem: too much ambition, not enough money. This often leads to the filmmakers spending more time attempting (unsuccessfully, more often than not) flashy camerawork, whiz-bang action sequences, or impressive special effects. They lose focus on story, character, and quality performances, and the movie yields unimpressive results.
It’s refreshing to find a movie like The Life I Lived, which manages to combine ambition with its obvious tight budget. Sure, it suffers from problems common to truly independent films (weak performances from bit players, inconsistent editing, derivative musical score), but the flaws give it a scrappy charm, and writer/director Ben E. Solenberger doesn’t let the story overplay its hand. He crafts a complex, nonlinear story that works despite its rushed third act.
The Life I Lived follows entrepreneur Bill Cacchiotti (Richard Bennett) from the 1970s to the present. As he reflects on, um, the life he lived, it occurs to Cacchiotti that things didn’t quite go as well as he had planned. He hoped his son, Eddie (David L. Buckler), would follow in his footsteps and take over his electrician business. He wanted to live the high life, so he joined up with some other local businessmen to become part of a small-town mob syndicate. By the time Cacchiotti reaches retirement, he’s no longer sure if he laid the best tracks for his son to steam down.
The story has echoes of The Godfather, but the main difference stems from the difference in motivation. Michael Corleone rebelled against his family’s ways — a reluctant mobster, only helping out when he realized his brothers were incompetent and his father was near-death. In The Life I Lived, Cacchiotti is the reluctant mobster, a man who destroyed his life (and, ironically, his family) because of his criminal behavior and the ensuing guilt. Eddie, on the other hand, is perfectly willing to take over the business, shady dealings and all.
The film dwells quite a bit on Cacchiotti’s early forays into criminal life, glossing over his rise to power. I’m okay with this because it’s implied early on that Cacchiotti’s local-businessman pals already have a syndicate in place — he’s just joining up. However, I wish they’d spent a little more time on the idea that Cacchiotti may say he’s doing everything for his family, but in reality he’s doing it for himself. He wants a nice car, he wants to eat at fancy restaurants — he has clear, selfish reasons in addition to the noble family reasons. The movie brings this up in one early scene but doesn’t mention it again. Mainly, it focuses on the big traumas — Cacchiotti’s first murder, his extortion (and torture) of a local politician, his marriage falling apart, his son discovering Cacchiotti’s dark side.
One quiet, affecting scene finds Cacchiotti haunted, decades later, by a single look of anger and disapproval an employee gives him after learning of Cacchiotti’s criminal empire. Another finds him reaching rock-bottom, drunkenly badgering kids on Halloween before plunking down in the street, in his underwear, with scotch in one hand and stolen candy in another. These scenes work best because they show the torment and drama found in life’s quieter moments. I wish they’d included more of these scenes rather than painting Cacchiotti’s life in broad strokes. With such a short running time (80 minutes including fairly long end credits), digging deeper into Cacchiotti couldn’t have hurt.
The broad strokes contribute to the rushed feeling in the third act. I don’t want to spoil it, but Solenberger goes for some unearned twists and turns in both plot and character. Though I liked the conclusion’s irony, the characters’ sudden shifts in motivation didn’t convince me. Going back to the brief runtime, we should have gotten a bit more development from Eddie and Gary (Ted Taylor), Cacchiotti’s longtime capo/enforcer, or at least a slower build to the third-act twists.
Overall, I liked the movie. It’s an imperfect underdog, but its flaws don’t overshadow its strengths. I’ve seen plenty of low- and no-budget indies, and most of them (especially crime dramas) are just atrocious. The Life I Lived is far from atrocious — it’s actually pretty good.
This is just a side-note, but I figured I ought to mention it since it contributed to my enjoyment of the movie: this is the story of a small-town mobster, set and shot in rural Virginia, cast with locals. You don’t often see mob movies where the characters aren’t wandering gritty urban streets talking with heavy New York or Chicago accents. It’s both refreshing and bizarre to see mobsters doing their dirty work in the backwoods, speaking to each other with that distinctive Virginian lilt. It’s a minor detail, but it makes The Life I Lived all the more endearing. If you like low-budget indies, you should check this one out.
Posted by D. B. Bates on May 27, 2008 12:00 AM