saw things so much clearer, once you... were in, my... rearview mirror.


Wednesday, November 7, 2007

The Best of Both Afflecks: "Gone Baby Gone"

It's always a pleasure to discover one's hidden talents; to this effect Ben Affleck must be elated. After starring in such iconic films as "Jersey Girl", "Gigli" and "Daredevil", Mr. Affleck has finally settled into the role he was clearly born to play, director. Those aforementioned films were indeed iconic - for their abysmal showing at the box office, utter banality or pathetic casting and performances. Mr. Affleck's current work "Gone Baby Gone", in which he smoothly steps behind the camera and takes the reigns, is iconic as well - for it's brilliant acting, masterfully crafted scenes and earnest self-awareness and sincerity. Moreover, as he retreats from the limelight, Mr. Affleck propels his younger brother Casey right into the heat. With remarkable skill, the younger Mr. Affleck doesn't so much as flinch under the bright light, but rather charges straight into it amongst a supporting cast of seasoned veterans and downright masterful actors. This film truly spotlights the best of both Afflecks.

"Gone Baby Gone", adapted from the novel by Dennis Lehane, who also penned the Oscar darling directed by Clint Eastwood, "Mystic River", revisits many of the same themes developed in the latter work. Gone is a complicated story touching on sensitive and complex issues of child welfare, urban social conditions, the meaning of home, the nature of justice and the role of one man in delivering it. The plot revolves around two Boston private investigators called on to work the case of a missing child - a toddler girl, Amanda McCready. Amanda is already all over the news after apparently being abducted from her bed while her mother left her sleeping to watch TV at a friends home; and what a mother! It's not even she who comes calling for help; it’s her brother and his wife, Amanda's effective surrogate parents. The two investigators they seek out, Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro, played by Casey Affleck and Michelle Monaghan, normally don't handle this kind of work; they enter the case reluctantly, in spite of Angie's almost prophetic resistance. Patrick and Angie share both a professional and personal relationship - the kind we all know can spell trouble. They're a young couple and to paraphrase Angie, don't need to find the baby girl abused and dead. After all it’s already been several days since her disappearance.

Still, Patrick can't help getting involved. It's not so much that he’s some kind of a hero, no not at all. Patrick is played deftly by Mr. Affleck as a man loath to accept his role, but compelled to by a sense of common decency and a reverential love for his neighborhood and home. Though he has never met them before, these aren't some random strangers coming for his help; these are his neighbors, old classmates, and brethren. Perhaps because of this commitment to the community, or in spite of it, he’s intimately connected to the inhabitants, the local haunts, the drug dealers and the culture. This gives him an edge that might help him reach places the cops can’t – and it does. For that matter though, Patrick isn’t exactly welcome by the police. The chief of the “Crimes Against Children” task force, Jack Doyle (Morgan Freeman), certainly doesn’t want two young upstarts getting in the way of his investigation. Yet, when Patrick’s initial attempts to dig up some dirt prove fruitful, the lead detectives on the case, Remy Bressant (Ed Harris) and Nick Poole (John Ashton), give him a break. Soon Patrick, Angie, Remy and Nick are neck deep into the case as it spirals towards a conclusion that will ultimately test Patrick and Angie’s relationship and sanity.

I must add, this being as good a place as any, that Mr. Harris is brilliant in his role. The character of Remy Bressant, a New Orleans native, is absolutely mesmerizing. Remy isn’t from Boston, but as he quips at Patrick, is perhaps more a local than Patrick himself, having lived there for longer than Patrick has been alive. Mr. Harris tops himself in this film, playing to some of the same inspirations that drove his likewise brilliant performance as a mob boss in “A History of Violence” and spot on performance as a federal agent in “A Beautiful Mind”. Remy is a complicated man and a very complicated role to play. We are by turns attracted to, turned off from, scared of and surprised by him. He can be sympathetic and warm, insightful and guiding, cold and sociopathic, and in his final scene, deceptively earnest and impassioned.

Mr. Affleck’s (the younger) anti-hero, private investigator, man of the streets main character gives the movie a welcome film noir feel. Scenes that take place in dank bars, smoky pool halls, outside hospitals, and at funerals - as Patrick digs around, working his connections and pushing their limits - aid the feeling. Of course being a color film doesn’t, though there is a certain similarity the film shares with another recent color neo-noir film, “Brick”. The difference between the film lies in the conceit “Brick” takes in developing its microcosm whereas in Gone, Mr. Affleck (the senior) seemingly creates the noir sense almost as an afterthought. It’s Mr. Affleck’s knack for developing scenes that are always immersed in some intangible tension and misfortune that really does the trick.

One of my favorite scenes takes place in a local bar as Patrick and Angie work a friend of Ms. McCready’s (Amanda’s mother) for some dirt on her. The place is dank and dark, they’re not welcome by the management, they’re not welcome by the customers, and they’re being a little too obvious. Someone has enough of their nosing around, makes a threat, then makes a move… Patrick rises, a door is locked, and then another exit blocked. Patrick isn’t one to take a threat lightly; especially not one directed at Angie, we’ve already gotten a sense for this in his character. Yet when his gun is drawn you can tell it’s only as his last resort- after his words, patience and courage had already been exhausted. You can also tell he’ll use it if he has to. When they make it out the door, the sun is shining and Patrick curses aloud, but he isn’t angry so much as disappointed. The contrast between the tension in the bar and the remorse outside, the dark inside of the bar and the shining outside world seem to mimic one of the film’s themes - the contrast of this decaying neighborhood and a hope for something better.

One of the elements that makes this movie so great isn't just the heavy themes it takes on - without ever preaching might I add - but the care and affection the film takes in profiling the Boston neighborhood, Dorchester, in which the story unfolds. I'm not privy to the methods used when the minor characters were cast, but you get a sense that they’re just some random people picked up off the street, or perhaps already drinking at that bar. I’ve spent a little time in Dorchester, visiting my good friend who lived there. I incidentally, well, intentionally watched the film with him too - he was quite amused at the portrayal of his old neighborhood. It’s a difficult one to bring to the screen for that matter. Dorchester is a tough place, traditionally down and out blue collar Irish now riddled with gang violence, drugs, and a restless immigrant community drawn from such far-flung and unlikely places like Cape Verde and Vietnam. It’s a place that could easily reach the screen as a stereotype of itself but Mr. Affleck doesn’t fall into this trap. Dorchester is simply Dorchester, it’s a place like any other with problems, so just focus on the story and don’t think too much about the “how or why” it came to be this way.

As the story weaves its way through the streets of Dorchester, and eventually far from them, Patrick and Angie are tested again and again, but in the end it’s Patrick who is confronted with a final choice. This choice is a complicated one - a focal point of themes that had recurred throughout the film - that raises many questions perhaps impossible to answer. Must the law always reign supreme? Is justice simply the blind application of the law? What is best for a child, to know where it came from and flourish despite its environment, or to be coddled and comforted in privilege? Who is one to judge the quality or importance of family? Patrick’s decision threatens his relationship with Angie, questions his loyalty to his neighborhood and home, strains his sense of justice and law, and challenges his character and morality. In spite of it all, a decision is made and refreshingly the movie ends without ever making a judgment call, leaving the responsibility to the viewer. Patrick is left to face the consequences of his actions and you are left to ask yourself, what would you do?

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