Director: Ben Affleck
Starring: Casey Affleck, Morgan Freeman, Ed Harris, Michelle Monaghan, Amy Ryan, Amy Madigan, Titus Welliver
Running Time: 114 min.
***1/2 (out of ****)
Everyone loves a comeback and very few comebacks these past couple of years have been as sweet as Ben Affleck's. His Academy-Award winning script Good Will Hunting (which co-wrote with buddy Matt Damon) vaulted him to the top of Hollywood's A-List in 1997, an honor he did his best to erase from our collective memories in the decade that followed. After starring in a series of truly awful big-budget flops and one disastrous celebrity engagement his talents as an actor and a writer began taking a backseat to his penchant for cashing big paychecks. He even starred in a (terrible) film called, appropriately enough, PAYCHECK.
The kid from Boston who finally got his break was gone, and in his name was placed was alongside other far less talented stars that let fame go to their heads. Then…something happened. He actually apologized. He admitted the choices he made were wrong and would now be concentrating on his work. Like many, I didn't believe him. After a strong supporting turn as fallen Superman star George Reeve in last year's Hollywoodland, we were forced to pay attention.
Maybe there was something to this "new" Ben Affleck after all. And now with Gone Baby Gone, which he both co-wrote and directed, the transformation is finally complete. I can't say it's a film that will stay with me forever but for a first-time director, or any director, it's a great achievement and requires multiple viewings to truly be appreciated And for Affleck it's the antithesis of all those other empty-headed big budget movies he starred in the past decade, during which he must have paid very close attention…to what NOT to do for his first feature.
Set in Boston, the film (adapted from Mystic River author Dennis Lehane's novel) centers around private investigator Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) and his girlfriend and partner Angie (Michelle Monaghan) are hired to look into the disappearance of a little girl, questioning locals in the neighborhood who are reluctant to open up to the cops. This doesn't sit well at all with Boston Police Captain Jack Doyle (Morgan Freeman) and Detective Remy Bressant (Ed Harris) who don't want two gumshoes jeopardizing their case or the welfare of a small child. The girl's mother, drug addict Helene (Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee Amy Ryan) isn't thrilled about it either, as it brings to light a lot of her shady activities with local thugs and exposes her incompetence and carelessness as a parent. The investigation also causes an even greater rift in her relationship with her sister and brother-in-law (played superbly by Amy Madigan and Titus Welliver).
The first hour of this film plays like a procedural. No, it is a procedural. So much so that I was wondering what all the hype was concerning a movie that's really just unfolding like a good episode of Law and Order, only with bigger stars. Most of it concerns Patrick and Angie gathering clues from and having (sometimes very heated) confrontations with the local riff raff while Freeman and Harris' characters complain about it. As I looked down at my watch though I noticed things were moving abnormally fast for a crime drama. It seemed as if they had burned through this really standard, unimaginative crime procedural in 60 minutes flat. I also asked myself why this movie was asking us to feel so sorry for this reckless, uncaring parent. Little did I know.
Then exactly half way through the film a shift occurs. I can't dare say what nor would I probably even be able to explain it, but let's just say the wool was completely pulled over my eyes and the story went places I never imagined it could. The layers of all the characters you met will be peeled away and the film will reveal itself as anything but a routine police drama. The twists and revelations just keep coming to the point that I had to throw my hands up in the air and admit that Affleck got me. The first hour can't be judged on it's own terms, something I wish I had known while watching it. There's no way I could have though because the script conceals its tricks so slyly and brilliantly, despite the fact they're all right there in plain view and make perfect sense. When it ends you think to yourself, "How could something that started like THAT, end like THIS?" Nothing is what it seems at first. No situation. No character. Everything is more complicated, and tougher. This isn't about just a missing girl or a grieving mother. Not by a long shot. Scenes that could be written off as throwaways in the first hour have a way of coming back and haunting you in the second, particularly a philosophical argument Patrick and Angie have in the car about the case.
I always love it when movies treat morally complex situations intelligently, without insulting the audience, but instead engaging them. At one point during the film one of the characters tell Patrick he has to "TAKE A SIDE." That could very well sum up the film as we're asked to take a side and you'll be flabbergasted at the depth and complexity of the question that's asked of us. And just think how many movies these days refuse to take a side and bail out. This one doesn't. It's possible you may not agree with the side the film or the main character takes but you have to give them credit for taking one and standing firmly behind it. You may even be angry with that stance, but you'll still be thinking about it days after the final credits role. It's a movie that understands that sometimes people do the right things for the wrong reasons or the wrong things for the right reasons. And that the line between right and wrong is often thinner than anyone believes it is.
It seems as if every year there's one Oscar nominated performance (usually in a supporting category) that has me scratching my head wondering what the Academy saw that I didn't. Upon first viewing I thought that performance belonged to Amy Ryan. Don't get me wrong I thought she did fine, but at first just didn't see anything that was especially worthy of a nomination. And considering she isn't in the film any longer than a total of 15 minutes I found myself even more perplexed than usual. I was all set to write this nomination off as just another case of an actor being given a ridiculous amount of hype and accolades for just doing a good job in a small role (think Geoffrey Rush's overrated Oscar-winning turn in 1996's Shine).
But then, hours later I realized all the scenes that stuck with me were hers. She's given a line very late in the film that must be the most offensive remark I've heard in a movie in the past year. That it even made the final cut is enough for my jaw to drop, but the way Ryan delivered it was such that I thought that yes, that was exactly the kind of stupid, insensitive thing this woman would say. It showed just how dumb she really is and what little grasp on reality she has. She isn't a bad person. That would be way too simple. She's just a woman who because of her station in life and lack of education can't improve her situation for herself or the daughter she loves. There's a subtle but important difference in playing the character like that and playing her as a total careless bitch, which would undercut the effectiveness of the entire story.
Ryan succeeded where so many other actresses would have failed and her performance ends up being the glue that holds the entire moral center of the story together. It isn't a huge role, but it's a crucial one. Affleck's script also has to be praised for adding those shades of complexity to the character Ryan played so brilliantly. And it's always great to see an actress who has been working hard for years finally get their big break and a well-deserved opportunity for bigger, better roles in the future.
If there's anyone else that could be singled out it's Casey Affleck who before this I seriously doubted had the goods to carry a film. Going in I chalked up his casting to nepotism but he's very effective and miles away from his Oscar- nominated supporting turn in The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford. Watching him here I think I gained a new appreciation for what he did in that film because the roles are as drastically different and diametrically opposed as can possibly be. There isn't a wimpy or cowardly bone in Patrick Kenzie's body. Ed Harris and Morgan Freeman electrify, personifying men of duty who are completely sure every step they take is just and right, even when there's heavy doubt that it is. You could make a strong case that Harris should have also earned a supporting nod for his complex portrayal in a very tricky role.
The opening shot of Gone Baby Gone is of the streets of Boston with everyone in the neighborhood going about the regular business of their day. At the end of the film we see basically the same scene again, but this time everything looks and feels different after what's unfolded. The streets. The sidewalks. The kids playing. Simple everyday life almost appears to have more value to it after watching and experiencing this ordeal. You could discuss and analyze the ending with friends afterwards but it wouldn't be long before that discussion became a heated argument. The movie polarizes its characters and us.
Comparisons will undoubtedly be made between this and the other Lehane adaptation, Clint Eastwood's inexplicable 2003 Best Picture nominee Mystic River. While that film contained a twist ending that elicited giggles, this contains one that's heartbreaking, right down to the final scene, making a profound and intelligent statement about our flawed nature as human beings. As a whole this work is far superior and I can see it holding up even better on repeated viewings. It'll be interesting to put in perspective just how effective this film is when contrasted alongside the other heavy-hitters of awards season. Gone Baby Gone could prove over time to be a film with strong staying power. And it means that Affleck guy can finally quit his day job if he wants. He just might have a real future behind the camera.