Directed by Ben Affleck. Screenplay by Ben Affleck & Aaron Stockard, based on the novel by Dennis Lehane. Produced by Sean Bailey, Alan Ladd Jr., Danton Rissner. Music by Harry Gregson-Williams. Photographed by John Toll. Edited by William Goldenberg. Production designed by Sharon Seymour. Starring Casey Affleck, Michelle Monaghan, Morgan Freeman, Ed Harris, John Ashton, Amy Ryan, Amy Madigan, Titus Welliver, Michael K. Williams, Edi Gathegi.
From the very first frames, Gone Baby Gone begins to work on us, planting us in the middle of Boston. Specifically, it unfolds in a working-class neighborhood in Dorchester, where families are tight-knight and territorial. In an opening sequence that has a sincere, quiet poetry to it, men and women who are unmistakably real Bostonians lean out of windows, peer out from front porches, go about their work and play on the street, all clinging to a note of pragmatic hope made more evocative by the plaintive, bittersweet notes of Harry Gregson-Williams’ score. John Toll’s beautiful, workaday photography also plays a big part, as it will throughout: we feel both warm and cold towards this place. Paradoxically, we feel at home here in this lovely ruin. And so does Casey Affleck, who wanders into the middle of this montage, strolling through the streets of Dorchester with such authority that we never once think that this is a movie star gone slumming. He begins to meditate, via voiceover, on the importance of your home, and how to be moral in a world full of cruelty. His voice is mumbled, beaten, and yet proud.
This is an atypical way to begin a crime thriller, but indicative of Gone Baby Gone’s breadth: it announces that it will be about people, about morals and consequences, which can often be just as crushing as violence. There is no shortage of gunplay and chases, and it follows time-honored police procedural conventions that we would never do without, but it also brings to the table an intelligent soul and a savage grace that transcends its own roots. That’s not a knock on the Dennis Lehane novel that inspired the film, but instead a credit towards screenwriters Ben Affleck and Aaron Stockard, who successfully capture Lehane’s style, which is to elevate pulp, and tell a lurid story that is actually about something, not going through the motions and apathetically pushing our buttons. It’s also the directorial debut of actor Ben Affleck, and he uses a surprising amount of craft to tell a very personal, genuinely great crime drama. If someone had told me five years ago that Ben Affleck would have directed one of my favorite films of the year 2007 (a great year for film), I would have said they were crazy. But, well…here we are.
One would be forgiven for at first thinking that Affleck’s choice of his brother Casey as lead would seem a mite suspicious, but when you see him in the role of Patrick Kenzie, everything clicks. Patrick and his lover, Angie Gennarro (Michelle Monaghan) are business partners right at home in this rough-and-tumble area of the city. Their ad says “private investigators,” and they are, but they mostly specialize in debt collecting and bail bond enforcement. They explain as much to an older couple that appear one morning at their door, Beatrice and Lionel McCready, who want to hire the two skip tracers to “augment” (their word) a police investigation into the disappearance of their niece, Amanda. The police don’t want the help, but Patrick and Angie are streetwise and not cops, which is a good recipe for finding out buried information around here. Although Angie doubts that their non-existent experience will be a big help, Patrick graciously accepts the case, because he knows (thanks to TV reports) that this kidnapping has ripped a hole in the neighborhood, and he wants to help see it healed. The stern Capt. Jack Doyle (Morgan Freeman) of the Boston PD, doesn’t appreciate outside help, and his thoughts on the seriousness of missing child cases are clear: “If we don’t catch the abductor by day one, only about ten percent are ever solved. This is day three.”
If Amanda’s odds are stacked against her, then perhaps they always were. There’s a reason why the little girl’s aunt and not her mother came looking for Angie and Patrick, and that’s because Helene McCready (Amy Ryan) is like a master class in wretchedness: alcoholic, a drug addict, with lines on her face a mile long, and a vocabulary that David Mamet would blush at. In TV interviews, she’s a sympathetic, if bewildered, presence as she pleas for the return of her little girl, but at home she’s crass and demeaning, and resents the police poking around her secrets. She is an unpleasant woman and a bad mother, but there’s a complexity within her that swings away from caricature and towards a particular truth: she is genuinely worried about Amanda’s disappearance, even though she hides behind an inscrutable, ugly façade. The police, who do not find Helene the easiest person to help, are at a dead end until McKenzie and Gennarro snag a serious lead that breaks open the case, and directly ties Helene to a vicious drug kingpin named Cheese (Edi Cathegi), who holds court next to his pool table and is only half-kidding when he waves his hands to two guests and says “I grant you audience.” He may be involved with the kidnapping, or he may not. And yes, his name is Cheese. It’s the kind of movie that can actually get away with little details like that.
This sets up a twisty, engrossing neo-noir plot that is rather ingenious. At first, we may think it is a simple parable of doing whatever it takes to solve a very personal case–a standard action drama. But Gone Baby Gone reaches further, and achieves more, by centering on hard moral choices. It is about guilt and regret, and the anguish of justice that doesn’t see the big picture. And it also gives several nods to criminal and judicial codes that seem eerily similar. Note the scene where Patrick and Angie meet an associate, a mid-level drug dealer who is offended at their notion that he might run in a crowd that includes pedophiles. We’re reminded of the subplot in Fritz Lang’s M, where criminals race against the police to find a child murderer, not only because his presence increases the heat, but also because he gives them all a bad name.
Boston is its own character in Gone Baby Gone: a decrepit, dilapidated city where (in the story, at least) hard-working families co-exist with drug dealers, snitches, murderers, and child molesters, and It’s an atmosphere that Patrick navigates with ease, probably due to intimate familiarity. (When Cheese offers him a line of coke: “No thanks. I quit.”) The younger Affleck does a remarkable job here: he is acknowledged as young-looking, but he is tough and resourceful, able to mollify a sociopathic drug dealer with mere words. It’s a running theme in the film that some kids in certain areas have to grow up very fast, and Patrick, a babe in the woods, already has the market cornered on angst, which only increases as the severity of the case begins to take its toll. He has promised Helene, in one of her rare lucid moments, to bring back her daughter safely, and as he proceeds he begins to question the idea that he can have any certainty—about anything. A harrowing sequence in a crack den brings Patrick face to face with his values. And, the way he processes what happens next, he feels like he loses.
The key figure of counterpoint is Det. Remy Bressant (Ed Harris), a transplant from New Orleans with a finite conscience and a voice made of smooth whiskey. He strikes an uneasy sub-partnership and friendship with Patrick, which reaches an apex during one night where the young man, wracked with guilt, looks to the older one for advice as they share booze in a hospital parking lot. Harris gives a monologue that is absolutely spellbinding: a tortured, sympathetic defense of the ends sometimes justifying the means, which is almost comforting in its starkness. Patrick, a lifelong Catholic, has trouble reconciling his values with his environs, while Bressant is pragmatic when he simplifies the issue in the terms of picking a side. Is murder a sin? “Depends on who you do it to,” says Bressant with drunken grimness. Patrick: “That’s not how it works.” It’s refreshing to see a drama that puts so much importance on a moral compass. And it is also indicative of the movie’s emphasis on character that this conversation also conveys a crucial, invisible plot point; only afterwards do we realize that Patrick, despite it all, noticed something big that we did not, and it was right there in plain view. The movie is particularly adept at springing twists that are fair, perfectly established by what has come before, using surprise, and not trickery. In a way, the entire nature of the story changes when we learn a key piece of information, but it changes in a way that makes complete sense.
There is a lot of dialogue in Gone Baby Gone—dialogue that rings true. I always deeply enjoy it when a film can accurately represent a specific time and place, and the film gets the seamy underbelly of Boston just right. Not that this is a surprise: the Afflecks were born and raised in Beantown, and you can sense that ease in which they give their characters specific, voices. Affleck’s guiding hand has a lot to do with scenes that are written to take advantage of the talent, not defeat them: you can sense actors knowing that they have good material, and have the confidence to swing for the fence, rather than a screenplay filled willed dialogue that no one would ever speak. Harris, of course, is electric, which is to be expected, but the real revelation is Oscar-nominated Amy Ryan, who is fearless in her evocation of the trashy Helene (she plays the recurring character Holly on the TV series The Office—to see how good an actress she is, compare that to this). And Titus Welliver, who plays the brother-in-law, isn’t as showy as Ryan, but has his own great bits: personally, I love the very specific way he orders a drink preparing for his big scene.
Most of all, however, I have to give special marks to Affleck as a young pup director. This material may sound inherently workable—the kind of project that anyone could make work. But that’s not the case, because Gone Baby Gone is not the work of a journeyman filmmaker, but of a storyteller who has command of the material he wants to bring to the screen. He’s confident to give actors not just moments to shine, but the right moments, and he trusts his audience to follow a complex story, potentially convoluted, always anchored by tight control and a gritty realism. Boiled down, I would argue that the plot of Gone Baby Gone actually is convoluted, maybe even overly colorful, but it doesn’t play that way, because Affleck brings a harsh authenticity that always feels genuine. There are no unwelcome additions, no extra scenes of violence to pump up the narrative, and it has a climax that ends not in a gun battle, but with talk—compelling talk that forces two good men holding diametrically opposed views into conflict–and it’s more exciting than a dozen car chases. Both of them have good reasons for believing what they do, and both having wrenching speeches where they justify their terms. And it all comes down to one phone call that can save or destroy a young person’s life. A lesser director would tilt this climax a certain way, and show their hand, and nudge the audience what to think. Affleck does not. He is restrained, and he pursues the logic of the situation right down to its ultimate conclusion, and doesn’t take a side, all the way to a bleak, haunting final shot, which is about a man living with the consequences of what he has done. I mean, seriously, about that last shot…just…well done, sir.
There are quibbles. The second act of the film is slightly uneven; a couple of pacing issues gloss over important point with too much haste. And some of the supporting characters don’t pop off the screen; their motivations murky and thin. And Michelle Monaghan is perhaps wasted as Angie—it’s important that she’s there, as she’s from the books, but she doesn’t earn her keep, doesn’t seem at ease on the street, seems far too innocent to be a worthy private eye. And her final big moment is unearned; she takes a stand that isn’t exactly prepared for in the preceding hour and a half, which weakens its impact. But overall, the film is a splendid procedural, which cuts deep into the city of Boston, and pulls out something both beautiful and rotten. Is some of this a credit to Lehane’s novel rather than the director? Yes. But you know what? Affleck didn’t have to pick this tricky novel to be his first project. If he is capable of making more films on the level (or above it) of Gone Baby Gone, then I welcome a valuable new director to the playing field.
I shouldn’t say any more at this point, but in a sense I don’t feel I’ve said enough. It’s very difficult to describe the effect that a well-done mystery can have; I feel throughout this that I’m not properly advocating my love of Gone Baby Gone, because I feel compelled to preserve its secrets. But I will say this: it is a crime movie that makes your heart break, and it is a character piece that will have most on the edge of their seats. There is a craftsmanship and intelligence to its structure that creates a devastating impact. Most Hollywood movies only pretend to be about the things they claim to be, but this one never lets go, never stops thinking, and creates a diabolical tragedy where not a single character is a one-dimensional villain. Even the person who seems like an easy antagonist has more wrinkles than you’d expect, and note what his final lines in the film are. I won’t share them here. But they are very interesting.
Ben Affleck’s second directorial feature, “The Town,” is in theatres September 17th.
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