Though I’ve never been particularly fond of his movies post Good Will Hunting, as a personality or movie star, I’ve always considered Ben Affleck to be one of the good guys, someone like Michael J. Fox late in his movie career, who I always found myself rooting for no matter how foul the product. Maybe it was my own self-delusion, but the downswing in Affleck’s career, I figured, had more to do with the machinations of the tabloid culture than it I did with his actual talent, though he clearly only sought advice from his checkbook when picking scripts. Still, there are few actors who are likable enough to be allowed to fail as many times as did Affleck, and that he was even allowed to take a standout role in last year’s otherwise mediocre Hollywoodland had to say something about the faith that someone, somewhere had in him. But more than anything, it’s Affleck’s keen self-awareness that I’ve always appreciated; he accepted his failures, he made light of them, and — over the past couple of years — he’s tried to make amends, which is considerably more commendable than the route, say, John Travolta took. Given a second chance at a career, Travolta — like Stallone after his Copland rebirth — set about to repeat the mistakes he made the first time around, soiling himself in cash at the expense of his own resurrected good will.
But Affleck, belying his donkey-party politics, has taken the bootstrap path; rather than live off the table scraps that Hollywood would no doubt feed him for the next decade until his Tarantino in shining armor came along, he’s eschewed indie welfare and has chosen to pick himself up, dust the J.Lo off his ass, and direct. Yet, instead of becoming yet another talentless actor-turned-director cliché (see, e.g., Brian Robbins, Dominick Dunne, David Schwimmer), many of whom do this out of simple vanity, Affleck has taken a modest, low-key approach, allowing the material to do the work for him and letting his cast (especially his brother Casey) make him look like, if not Scorsese or Eastwood, at least a director adept enough to echo their styles without copying them wholesale. There is no real Affleckian imprimatur on Gone Baby Gone (except maybe Casey’s), but — like a gambler who bets against his own team just to break a slump — the decision not to inject himself or a style of his own into the film may have actually been the wisest decision he’s made thus far in his career.
Though I, like Dan, was won over by the last Dennis Lehane adaptation, Eastwood’s Mystic River — in part because the intense mystery and, in part, because it was filmed in parts of Boston with which I was extremely familiar — I can see where the unrestrained acting might’ve been off-putting (I also felt that the last scene — an out-of-character MacBethy moment between Laura Linney and Sean Penn— nearly destroyed the entire film). But for those who might’ve loved Mystic River but for the operatic Oscar mugging, Gone Baby Gone is similarly riveting, downbeat, and — despite a slightly contrived conclusion — morally ambiguous enough to inspire envy even in rain clouds. And here, no one is trying — with decibels and spittle — to lodge their performance so deep into the Academy’s ear that it won’t forget them come Oscar time; Morgan Freeman, Michelle Monaghan, and Casey Affleck give commanding, controlled performances that quietly seep under your skin and bleed out in your perspiration as the film winds toward its somber conclusion. Ed Harris, who easily could’ve give-me-back-my-daughtered his performance is, instead, steely — the man can knock the air out of you with a cold stare. Casey, likewise, is simply remarkable; raspy and fast-talking, he delivers his lines with the patter of a Raymond Carver character, only inverted, aired-out, and saturated with calm and heaviness. If there is one unqualified success in Ben Affleck’s directorial debut, it’s in the way he has harnessed his own experience in front of the camera to extract breathtaking performances from his cast from behind it.
Ben Affleck also makes more of his Boston setting than did Eastwood, or even Scorsese in The Departed, by using it not just for local color, but to infuse the grit and grime into the story. It’s set in Dorchester, one of the ugliest and roughest neighborhood in Boston, and Affleck uses his backdrop in the same way David Simon uses similarly hardscrabble crack dens of Baltimore in “The Wire”: as a central character to the story. Each dilapidated structure carries with it a burden, a small piece of the narrative weighed down by the gravity of the neighborhood’s past, while each of its denizens — in their hollow expressions and their beat-down swagger — supply the city its makeup and wardrobe (and one thing is for certain: the paparazzi likely didn’t spend a lot of time following Affleck around during location shoots). While Eastwood may be the more capable director, Affleck schools his ass in terms of capturing working-class Boston, the people, and its ethos, in part because he actually took a page out of the David Simon playbook and used non-actor residents to, essentially, play themselves. And unlike Eastwood, Affleck’s depiction of the area goes beyond simply shooting the facades of multi-family housing units and the Boston skyline; Affleck treats Dorchester, warts and all, like the ugly child that it is. All the same, it’s hard not to fall in love with the neighborhood, which only makes it more heartbreaking when that ugliness rears up and bites your nose off.
(And for fans of “The Wire,” Omar (Michael Williams) shows up here in one scene, brilliantly cast as a cop, though it is “The Wire’s” Amy Ryan who is so unrecognizably good as the abducted girl’s mother that you’d have thought she was one of the locals Ben dug up).
The story itself doesn’t quite live up its setting or the acting performances, but part of that is due to the limitations of the adaptation; Gone Baby Gone is the fourth in Lehane’s Kenzie and Gennaro crime series, and the backstory of many of the characters was necessarily excised for the film, so we have little invested in the private dicks played by Casey Affleck and Michelle Monahan when a four-year-old girl is abducted. Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) and his partner/girlfriend Angie Genarro (Monaghan) are brought in by the missing girl’s aunt (Amy Madigan), because the girl’s mother is a junkie “cunt.” They’re hired to “augment” the case, like “they did with JonBenet Ramsey,” after the police, led by deputy chief Jack Doyle (Morgan Freeman) and Detective Remy Bressant (Ed Harris), fail to come up with any leads. Kenzie — who is just another townie, only one with a certificate on his wall — has a leg up on the cops because he knows the relatives of the missing girl and the suspects. Skittish at first, he throws himself ankle-deep into the muck and finds that, beyond the abduction, the shit is piled neck high, so that when he’s eventually faced with two equally grim options, he doesn’t know whether to duck or cut off his own head.
I probably would’ve cut off my head rather than live in shit for the rest of my life, as Kenzie chooses to do, but no matter: In 114 minutes, Ben Affleck manages to atone for a decade worth of sins, which is no small feat if you’ve seen Daredevil or Jersey Girl. He may not win any statues for his efforts — there are a couple of lightweight scenes that expose the wetness behind his ears — but if the Academy isn’t bombarded with a slew of mentally-challenged characters and ugly serial killers between now and Christmas, Casey very well might. More importantly, however, Gone Baby Gone is a great fucking film and a movie that Ben Affleck, even if the awards elude him, ought to be pretty goddamn proud of.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He lives in Ithaca, with his wife and son. Please, leave a comment or send an email.
Gone Baby Gone / Dustin Rowles
Film | October 21, 2007 | Comments ()