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Gone Baby Gone (2007) Print E-mail
Friday, 19 October 2007
“If that [girl’s] only hope is you,” a character says to Patrick Kenzie, “then I feel for her, because she’s gone, baby, gone.” It’s the Dorchester region of Boston, and we’re back in Dennis Lehane territory (“Mystic River”), down where you can’t clearly tell the gangsters from the civilians, as in “The Departed.” “Gone Baby Gone” marks the directorial debut of Ben Affleck, and it shows him to already be light on his feet with an excellent eye for detail and character. He muffs a few minor technical aspects, as when a holdup in a bar is confusing due to lack of coverage, but by and large, he’s home free. The story he’s chosen, from the novel by Lehane, centers on one of the classic moral quandaries—does the end ever justify the means? It’s likely to stir arguments among friends who see the film, but this is positive—and it comes from involvement in the story and with the characters.

Patrick Kenzie (the director’s brother Casey) still lives on the same block where he grew up, sharing an apartment with his lover and partner Michelle Monaghan (Angie Gennaro). They operate a low-key detective agency specializing in local problem. Beatrice McCready (Amy Madigan) and her husband Lionel (“Deadwood”’s Titus Welliver) approach them to augment rather than replace the police investigation into the disappearance of their 4-year-old niece Amanda (Madeline O’Brien), who’s been kidnapped.

The detectives assigned to the case are rough, experienced Remy Bressant (Ed Harris) and his partner Nick Poole (John Ashton), who at first resents Patrick’s coming into the case, but when Patrick’s knowledge of the neighborhood and the people in it lead to some early clues, Remy relaxes somewhat. But his supervisor, Capt. Jack Doyle (Morgan Freeman), is sternly overseeing everything—he has a personal interest, as his own daughter was lost to a kidnapper. And he’s head of the Boston police department’s crimes against children department.

Amanda’s mother Helene (Amy Ryan), Lionel’s sister, is sneering and sarcastic, and disturbingly evidently none too worried about her daughter’s disappearance. Angie is concerned about Patrick becoming too involved in the case, which seems likely to end with Amanda’s death.

Patrick, Bressant and the others learn that Helene lied in claiming she’d left Amanda alone only momentarily, and that she was instead getting drunk at a local bar, her frequent hangout. Plus she has a drug problem—which leads them to suspect local drug kingpin “Cheese” (Edi Gathegi) may be involved. He was ripped off for a huge amount of cash, and may be willing to trade the child for the money.
Things seem to come to a climax at a water-filled, abandoned quarry where there’s a lot of confusion and gunfire and tragedy. But Patrick isn’t entirely willing to let go of the mystery of the kidnapping.

Casey Affleck is great in “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward, Robert Ford”—he’s Bob Ford, playing the role with a kind of unemphatic intensity that’s almost mesmerizing, and surely worthy of an Oscar nomination. His role here isn’t as complex, and the character not as open, as in the other film, but he’s equally convincing. He catches and holds our attention—we experience everything from his point of view (helped by his occasional narration). He’s more boyish than his big brother Ben, but has the same dark good looks, both of which make it easy for other characters to underestimate Patrick.

Ed Harris, one of the most reliable actors currently in movies, is here lean and tough, wearing a goatee, with his hair oddly spiked. Bressant is strong and experienced; he’s seen all the crap Boston has to offer, but still clings to a sense that just behind all this crime and cruelty, there’s something better. Harris is always at his best in supporting roles, and he owns this one.

Amy Ryan is excellent, a perfect embodiment of a certain kind of American woman in her 20s or 30s—the tough little brat who knows she doesn’t have anything figured out, but can’t allow anyone else to know that. She fends off everything with ready and cheap sarcasm, giving her the illusion that she’s dealing with tough questions by being above them. But she’s not very smart; her tough-cookie wisecracks get her nothing but grief—yet she can’t let go of them. They’re her only shield. We see it crack a few times, when she’s intermittently aware of what might have happened to Amanda. She’s not an appealing character, and she doesn’t gain our sympathies, but we feel for her in that she seems helpless, ignorant and pathetic.

Morgan Freeman only has a few scenes; he’s played guys like this before, always convincingly. And he’s convincing here, too. The entire movie is well cast; Michelle Monaghan seems slightly short-changed in terms of the importance of her role—she’s always there, but is contained and too often left in the corners of the screen. Titus Welliver is becoming almost as reliable and strong a character actor as Ed Harris—and somehow keeps this guy, who isn’t as supportive as he seems, a little sympathetic. Amy Madigan is the only one who’s really worried about little Amanda, and she’s so worried she’s tying herself into knots. As a director, Ben Affleck shows strong support for his actors, casting the roles carefully in the first place.

The sense of place is very strong, very familiar, and not just because of the other recent crime movies set in Boston’s inner city. The characters all seem real, and many of them are—Ben Affleck clearly has an eagle eye for the found moment, the truthful gesture, even among the extras and bit players in the background.

The movie is rich in ideas, sometimes baldly stated: “Murder’s a sin,” says one. “It depends on who you do it do,” replies another. And the first responds, “No. It is what it is.” Well, is it? The end of the film raises another major question—and courageously, director Affleck refuses to answer it. The characters themselves make strong arguments for both sides of that question, and we’re left to deal with it ourselves. It’s not an easy question, and Affleck largely avoids suggesting the “right” answer. It may be that there isn’t one.

For most people, if you think about Ben Affleck (apart from his romances), you also think of Matt Damon, the first among the “special thanks” list at the end. Damon has, by sheer perseverance, plus intelligence and talent, become a versatile, reliable leading man, apparently leaving his co-Oscar winner Ben (they co-wrote “Good Will Hunting’) in the dust. But recently, Affleck has shown that he can be an excellent actor (“Hollywoodland”); with “Gone Baby Gone,” he somewhat unexpectedly shows that he can be a solid, intelligent director as well.

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