The Theory of Chaos

Thursday, January 17, 2008

MOVIE REVIEW - Gone Baby Gone

Full review behind the jump

Gone Baby Gone

: Ben Affleck
: Screenplay by Ben Affleck & Aaron Stockard, based on the novel by Dennis Lehane
: Ben Affleck, Sean Bailey, Alan Ladd, Jr., Danton Rissner
: Casey Affleck, Michelle Monaghan, Morgan Freeman, Ed Harris, John Ashton, Amy Ryan, Amy Madigan, Titus Welliver

Since solidifying his grip on stardom in 1997 with roles in
Chasing Amy and Good Will Hunting, Ben Affleck has appeared in 1998’s Oscar winner for Best Picture, Shakespeare in Love, as well as adolescent fare like Daredevil. He’s worked with directors from Kevin Smith to John Frankenheimer to John Woo. Although his stardom has peaked and waned, and his ratio of good movies to bad has not flattered him, one thing that is now clear is that, while working with all those filmmakers, he was taking notes. Stepping behind the camera for his first time as a director and only second time as a screenwriter, Affleck crafts a mature and confident dramatic thriller in Gone Baby Gone, a debut so staggeringly good as to make us wonder why he’s wasted all this time acting.

He has not played it safe, tackling one of the dense, morally-labyrinthine Boston crime sagas of Dennis Lehane, whose novel
Mystic River challenged even a savvy veteran like Clint Eastwood. But Beantown is Affleck’s turf. Crowd scenes in movies often look subtly ridiculous, because professional background actors work hard to make themselves seen. Filling the backgrounds of Gone Baby Gone with real locals gives Affleck an additional layer of natural scenery, you get the feeling that when the camera stopped rolling, these people stayed right on that stoop. This authority of setting Affleck brings is essential in breathing life into this story’s wrenching twists. And he also happens to have a solid in with the perfect lead actor.

This is not just a breakthrough for Ben Affleck, reformed heartthrob, it is as much a revelation for Casey Affleck, sudden leading man escaping his older brother’s shadow. Patrick Kenzie, the private detective Casey Affleck plays, needs to embody a precise mixture of conflicting attitudes: a sense of having outgrown his upbringing but still possessive enough of it to not allow outsiders to judge, confidence in his own abilities tempered by an inborn chip-on-the-shoulder. Kenzie’s opening monologue talks about how it’s the things we don’t choose – like who we are born to and where – that define who we are. Casey Affleck the actor slips into this truth like old clothes, he doesn’t need a map to walk these streets.

Kenzie, partnered with his live-in girlfriend Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan), is used to catching deadbeats and bail jumpers. Keeping the neighborhood’s business in the neighborhood is simply what’s done, in his mind. But then he’s hired to work the kidnapping of little girl Amanda McReady (Madeline O’Brien), which will require him to navigate not just the media circus, but a police captain (Morgan Freeman) with painful personal experience in how badly these cases can go awry from the best of intentions. And then there’s the child’s mother.

Helene McCready (Amy Ryan) is not easy to sympathize with, and Ryan the actress asks for none in one of the year’s great supporting performances. Alcoholic, abrasive, delinquent, dishonest, drug-addicted, Helene is a roving hazard who, to this point, has largely treated motherhood as an occasional distraction to her social life. Her tears for the news cameras, and her hogwash story about being at home watching her favorite TV show during the kidnapping, seem part of an unspoken contract between victim and media, that they’ll all cooperate in showing this is as a morally-easy fairy tale with all the stock characters: angelic child, grieving and innocent mother, sinister kidnapper with who-knows-what in store for the child. Kenzie suspects more complexity.

He and Angie work the neighborhood, trying to chip away at the clannish silence. Sometimes they get into trouble because they’re across the table from drug dealers, sometimes it’s just because they’re asking questions in a bar where people don’t like their clean and smart faces. They end up in a partially-honest ad hoc partnership with police detective Remy Bressant (Ed Harris), a man who has asked himself – what kind of violence and rule-breaking is acceptable when done for the cause of protecting a child? His answer is “anything”.

Lehane’s plot, rendered with confidence in screenplay form by Ben Affleck and co-writer Aaron Stockard, shows an intimate understanding of the hysteria with which our culture treats children and the dangers they face. The dangers are real, but equally real is the way in which people take license to condemn others and ruin, even end, lives in the name of moral absolutism. Kenzie is a man in a position, time and time again, to ask himself “what is right?” The situations he is in, in his mind, have clear answers, just not easy ones.

Remember what he says at the beginning, remember his attitude about the place he lives and what he does within the community, and you’ll know what choices he will make, how he will reject every simple explanation, why he will proceed beyond the point when all seems resolved, because pride won’t let him leave a lie on the table no matter what it might cost him. This is the wholeness, the consistency, and the excellence of Casey Affleck in this role. Everything about him seems to respond by instinct, from the way his voice subtly changes color depending on if he’s speaking to cop or neighbor, to the way he knows when the situation demands a display of testosterone.

The other breakthrough performance in the movie belongs to Ryan, a two-time Tony nominee (most recently for playing Stella in a revival of A Streetcar Named Desire) who has been cutting her teeth on big and small screens for seventeen years, and yet as Helene McCready it’s as if we are seeing her for the first time. She is manically self-destructive, but not incapable of feeling, and cannot be denied her real tears and panic as reality sinks in. Without giving much away, I can say that moral puzzle box Gone Baby Gone is drawing us into would fall apart if Ryan were not as thoroughly excellent as she is.

It’s difficult for me to remember a crime story whose layers are as expertly concealed; that manages to propel you through one shock after another, constantly destroying illusions of the truth in search of the real thing. And it’s equally difficult for me, watching Gone Baby Gone, one of the year’s best films, to remember a story that better illuminates and dramatizes that old saying: once you save someone’s life, you’re responsible for them forever.


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