A film review by Craig J. Koban

 

 

 

Rank: # 9

 

GONE BABY GONE jjjj

2007, R, 113 mins.

Patrick Kenzie: Casey Affleck / Angie Gennaro: Michelle Monaghan / Jack Doyle: Morgan Freeman / Remy Bressant: Ed Harris / Nick Poole: John Ashton / Helene McCready: Amy Ryan / Bea McCready: Amy Madigan / Lionel McCready: Titus Welliver

Directed by Ben Affleck / Written by Affleck and Aaron Stockard / Based on the novel by Dennis Lehane.

"Shame is God's way of telling you that you've done something wrong."

- Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck)

in GONE BABY GONE

 

There is the old adage that novelists write what they know.  I think that the same philosophy holds true for directors: the best ones film what they know.

This sentiment is absolutely true of Ben Affleck’s extraordinary and triumphant directorial debut in GONE BABY GONE, which in turn is an adaptation of the acclaimed novel of the same name by Dennis Lehane (who also penned MYSTIC RIVER, in turn made into a film).  By his own public admission, GONE BABY GONE is Affleck’s favourite of Lehane’s four part book series (it’s book four) about a pair of Bostonian private eyes...and it shows in every frame.

Just as Martin Scorsese knows the all of minutia of New Yorker street life, both Affleck and Lehane know Boston backwards and forwards.  There have been many films set in Boston, but GONE BABY GONE feels the most visceral and real.  Evidently, this has a considerable amount to do with the fact that Affleck, Lehane, and star Casey Affleck (Ben’s little brother) were born and raised in the Massachusetts city.  What’s truly marvelous here is how Affleck so thoroughly encapsulates all of the gritty details of his home town; he makes Boston a threatening and harsh city alongside being a place of rich character and history.  As we see opening moments of the film - which are shot with a documentarian eye by Affleck - we don’t get the impression that we are watching actors in controlled settings, but rather living, breathing Bostonians inhabiting their world.  The level of verisimilitude that the film evokes is its main attraction.

Perhaps beyond Affleck’s understated and razor sharp look at Boston life is his acute and keen affection for the actors and performances, and GONE BABY GONE contains notable Oscar caliber work.  The film’s single best performance comes at the hands of Casey Affleck, who has clearly emerged here far from beyond the shadow of his older sibling’s star status and has revealed himself to be an amazingly realized and accomplished character actor.  What Affleck is able to do in GONE BABY GONE is to consistently modulate an underplayed performance of edge, cynicism, and caged rage.  There is not one ounce of showboating or pompous camera mugging that one could have feared could have been the result of a famous actor directing his baby brother.  It’s noteworthy that brother Ben is able to wipe away all excesses and directs brother Casey to a performance of quiet spoken intensity and power.

If the performances and direction are top notch, then the screenplay - adapted by Ben Affleck and Aaron Stockard - is equally compelling.  GONE BABY GONE achieves the notoriety of going beyond its more obvious murder mystery undertones and subsequently becomes a really polarizing and absorbing commentary on child neglect.  The film is a hard boiled mystery yarn that - if set in another time - could have easily occupied the same landscape as the works of Raymond Chandler, but it’s not one of those neatly tied up thrillers that goes through the motions, offers up would-be shocking plot twists that border on asinine, and then concludes with the case being solved.  Like great film noirs, GONE BAY GONE does not concern itself largely with the how’s and why’s of a particular crime; it’s real investment is in the often difficult line between what one thinks is right and wrong.

What does it mean to do the right thing?  What are the consequences of doing what you think is right even when all around you beg to differ?  How does one deal with the insecurity of doing the right thing while you have progressive self doubt?  Does the safety of a child override all other impulses to act, even if by "safety" it means placing the child in an atmosphere of emotional neglect?  All of these questions - and many more - are raised in GONE BABY GONE, and the best part of all is the fact that the film never provides black and white answers, nor do I think viewers will have a definitive mind set leaving the theatre.  GONE BABY GONE is a small masterpiece of ethical divisiveness.  The film is an undeniably strong police procedural, but the fact that it also deals with the essence of what it means to be humane - and does so in an brutal and unflinching manner - is to its ultimate credit.  For a film by a virginal director to take on such a moral complexity is astounding.

As the film begins we are introduced to two of the most interesting private eyes in recent movie memory.  They are a boyfriend/girlfriend team of Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) and Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monagham).  There look really unassuming; they live in a meager home, dress in tattered jeans and hoodies, and look like rejected white trash.  But, beneath their unassuming facades lurks smart and cunning investigators, the kind that are masters of tracking people that most would not have the perseverance to look for.  Of course, the two are relatively young and make mistakes, but their naivety often works to their advantage: They look for and ask hard questions that many others would never dare to.  Their forward drive and conviction - even in the midst of uncertainty - makes them stronger than other PIs.

Early in the film they are approached by Lionel and Beatrice McCready (Titus Welliver and Amy Madigan, both rock solid and in fine form) who have a very young niece named Amanda (Madeline O’Brien) who has been kidnapped.  They seem to be the only ones that have been effective parents to the troubled girl, seeing as her mother, Helene (Amy Ryan, in a powerful performance) is basically a drug addicted and negligent parent.  Obviously, Helene wants her daughter back and she has police assistance, but Lionel and Beatrice don’t think that the cops have been doing their jobs effectively.  As a result, they speak with Patrick and Angie about taking up their case.

At first, Patrick and Angie don’t want to interfere with a police matter and one that is very widely publicized, but Lionel and Beatrice rightfully convince them that maybe someone that is not a member of the police could shake down the neighborhood better and look for clues.  Patrick knows that he has the street skills to help the teary-eyed couple.  He is one smooth taker, the kind of guy that can tell off a much bigger man with little hesitation, even if he’s breathing down his gun barrel.  One of my favourite exchanges he has occurs while he is drilling a local drug dealer for answers.  When he gets information from him that he does not necessarily find reliable, he matter-of-factly tells the thug, "Okay, you say you didn’t do it.  Fine.  But if I find out that you’re lying to me, I will bribe every cop in the bug to come after you.  I’ll tell everyone I know that you’re a rat...and I know a lot of people."  Patrick does not need a gun to defend himself: He let’s his mouth put him on the offensive.

The police investigation is being led by Jack Doyle (Morgan Freeman, once again showing his understated power), who heads up crimes against children.  At first, he does not like the idea of Patrick and Angie sticking their noses in police matters, but he does allow them to work with his men Remy Bressant (Ed Harris, in his best work in years) and Nick Poole (John Ashton).  Slowly, the detective pair and the cops start to uncover a connection between the Helene’s drug supplier and a recent robbery of thousands of dollars of drug money.  However, just when the audience thinks that the case is an open and shut affair, a wicked curve ball is thrown at the couple that manages to not only single handedly change their mind set as to who is guilty and who is innocent, but it also radically alters their perceptions on what it means to do the right, just, and noble thing.

It would be impossible for me to describe what, in fact, doing the "right thing" for the characters means without giving away too much of the mystery within the film, not to mention the intricate twists and turns the story takes.  All I can say is that it greatly polarizes the audience as much as the two main detective characters.  Patrick and Angie are not defined as a squeaky clean and mutually supportive couple, nor is Angie a staunchly embracing girlfriend figure.  At one point when you expect the screenplay to give her an obligatory moment of emotional support for Patrick, it surprises by giving us the exact opposite.  "If you do what I think you’re going to do," she tells Patrick at one vital point, "then I will hate you."

That’s the whole emotional epicenter of GONE BABY GONE.  This is not just a paint-by-numbers, CSI inspired murder mystery.  It has the standard elements of those types of films, but the way Affleck and company propels us into its lurid and conflicted world and edges us in scene by scene into its labyrinth of moral conundrums is intoxicating.  What’s truly ingenuous is how the performances never once really give too much away.  When we think certain characters are noble, they’re not, even without any provocation to think that way.  GONE BABY GONE does an exemplary job of keeping its audience at a distance; we are never really too sure who is culpable or who is innocent.  All of the intricacies of the plot help to define the film’s dark and uncertain themes.

The film’s performances are stellar.  Veterans like Ed Harris and Morgan Freeman are always great.  Freeman in particular has a way of dialing down his secondary supporting role in a way that allows it to pay off more dramatically later.  Michelle Monaghan, who has had a career of variety, playing in everything from MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III to the more recent Farrelly brothers comedy, THE HEARTBREAK KID, finds a really grounded center to her conflicted role.  Angie could have been nothing more than a routine love interest, but she is established as a very crucial figure to Patrick’s character arc.  And then there is Casey Affleck, who gives a career making performance here of remarkable assuredness.  He occupies the most complex and crucial role of the film.  Not only is he the main protagonist, but he also has to deal with life affirming issues that challenge his very good guy image.  I loved how he is able to command interest and empathy from the slightest of effort in scenes.  One moment, where Patrick confronts the film’s "villain" after he has been told that doing the right thing would be disastrously wrong, is played absolutely right on every note by Affleck.

I think that GONE BABY GONE is a hard boiled, love-hate ballad to Boston and a gripping and absorbing neo-noir masterstroke work.  It’s a film dripping with seedy details, morally ambiguous characters, and absorbing and thought-provoking issues.  As a mystery, it works stupendously and as a pointed morality play, it speaks on issues that anyone in the audience will have invested interest in.  More than anything, it establishes Ben Affleck as a major directorial talent that could have him occupy an A-list of other actors-turned-directors.  For a first time behind the director’s chair, Affleck has the timing, instincts, and control of a filmmaker far more experienced than he is, which could allow for him to all but erode his past indiscretions as an actor and celebrity figure.  As much as this is Ben Affleck's rousing turn as director, GONE BABY GONE is also a victorious and auspicious reveal of Casey Affleck’s growing strengths as a character actor.  With the Affleck brothers both in high stride, they make GONE BABY GONE one of 2007's most accomplished films.

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