Friday, November 2, 2012

Gone Baby Gone

GONE BABY GONE           B            
USA  (114 mi)  2007  d:  Ben Affleck 

I always thought it was the things you don’t choose that makes you who you are. 
—Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck)

A surprisingly complex film that isn’t over when it’s over, that leaves you wondering how you got from point A to point B when so much in between seemed ridiculously contrived, almost defying belief, yet somehow in the end, there’s still plenty to like about this film, much of it from going against the grain.  First of all there’s Casey Affleck (Patrick Kenzie), absolutely nobody’s version of a hero, especially fresh off his performance where the title of the film outright calls his character a coward, THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD (2007), recalled awhile back as one of the crazy lunkheads in Gus van Sant’s GERRY (2002), who now appears as one of the strangest leading characters, as he could just as easily be anyone, the kind of guy who disappears unnoticed in a crowd.  But here he’s Patrick Kenzie, a private eye with a gun and a beautiful babe (Michelle Monaghan), a short-fused badass who stands up to punks on the street as well as thugs in all walks of life, keeping his brain on alert while the world is spinning out of control all around him.  This is as improbable as Elliot Gould playing a mumbling Philip Marlowe in a sun tinged take on Raymond Chandler’s film noir world in Robert Altman’s THE LONG GOODBYE (1973), which by the way also caught us off guard, but worked.  Second of all there’s the man behind the camera, a former tabloid king whose acting career and reputation have fizzled to record lows, as he’s become an easy target, routine fodder for jokes condemning him as a lamebrain to the second hand bin.  What’s he trying to do here, take on the persona of George Clooney as a clever mastermind behind the camera?  And third there’s Morgan Freeman, a man whose reputation is rock solid in his role as chief of police, a man’s man, a leader of men, the kind of guy you would want to have in your corner in a time of trouble, as he’s wise enough to pass for several men.  And finally there’s Amy Ryan (at the time of the release, who?), as unsympathetic a character as the screen has seen in ages, and yet it is this director who remains undaunted by her scandalous behavior, who by the end of this film makes us all question ourselves, like who are we to judge?  Yet judgments are made throughout this film, most with enormous consequences, which makes this a highly provocative crime thriller about a stolen baby, where a private eye and his good looking partner are called upon to look through the cracks and scour the dregs of what the police usually overlook or can’t see. 

Opening in first person narration, this initially has the feel of a literary warhorse like SOPHIE’S CHOICE (1982), where the poetic thoughts invoke something outside our comprehension, beyond our grasp, yet then veers into the working class neighborhoods of Boston in a completely unpretentious view of the world, where a baby has gone missing and a distraught family is on the news begging for her safe return.  Suspicious of the police, the family hires this improbable young couple, hoping they know people who don’t talk to the police.  Into the seedy underworld they go, with the beautiful girl following his every move into the gutter, through back room bars, into the homes of crack dealers, where we learn that the foul-mouthed crackhead mother (Amy Ryan) with the missing girl moves within these circles, a mother who may have put her own daughter at risk just for a chance to get high.  Eventually the private eyes team up with a couple of veteran detectives (Ed Harris and Nick Poole), an unsavory relationship from the outset, each openly suspicious of the other, where Kenzie is told to “Go back to your Harry Potter books.”  What’s most surprising perhaps to the viewer is Affleck’s immediate ascension to lead man on the case, where he appears more like a cop than a cop, yet he’s not supposed to be a cop, just a guy from the neighborhood.  This is the first of a series of improbable occurrences that stretch one’s credulity, but Affleck makes it work with his profanity laced chutzpah, standing up to thugs and hoods like he’s been doing it all his life, showing the kind of balls that gains immediate acceptance into a cop’s world.  As the danger mounts, so do the unsavory characters.  The division between male and female is tested, as they’re challenged in very different ways.  The tense atmosphere makes it hard to separate the good guys from the bad, as they’re continuously interwoven into each other’s lives, mirror reflections of this kind of sick underworld where intense flare ups are routine, where staring down the barrel of a gun becomes the measure of a man, not the kind of world most of us would choose to enter, which makes it all the more intriguing when we witness moral leaps of faith.

This brooding contemplative thriller is a series of mood swings that moves like a chessboard across this murky landscape, where every action causes an unexpected reaction, with inexplicable consequences that only grow darker as the film progresses.  Monaghan is overly pretty and never feels right when the going gets rough, but the rest of the cast has a hard edge that’s been through tough times.  Written by MYSTIC RIVER (2003) novelist Dennis Lehane, we’re once again asked to examine modern day morals under siege, where there’s a thick layer of grime like quicksand just under the surface pulling us all too easily into this morass of moral ambiguity where it’s much simpler to look the other way, and righteous indignity has a youthful, idealist resemblance to Crusader Rabbit with a witty arcane charm that feels instantly outdated and out of place.  Despite some off-the-rails plot twists, this is a film of ideas where the believability of the actors makes all the difference in the world and the strong performances are supported by the weight of the film, a surprisingly strong effort that never bows to the outsider money interests of happy endings commercialism and maintains its integrity right through to the end in a shot that visually recalls the final shot of Ryan Gosling in HALF NELSON (2006), but offers a bleaker ray of hope.      

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