Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Cinewise Throwback - Gone Baby Gone (2007)

When I first moved out to Los Angeles just over three years ago, the first movie I saw in theaters was Rob Zombie's Halloween remake. 

It was not a promising start.

A month later we got Gone Baby Gone, a film that simultaneously reminded me why I loved Boston so much, and why I'd decided to move 3,000 miles away from it.  Ben Affleck's directorial debut is a striking testament to the power of cinema, to it's ability to make us think, make us feel, and make us do. 

Three years later, as Affleck's sophomore effort cements him as a film force, I look back at what I said about his debut then...

A three-year-old girl goes missing in a lower-middle class South Boston neighborhood. Her negligent singlemother is way too deep in coke and gangland activity to do much about it and her overzealous sister-in-law has turned the incident into a media circus. The solemn police captain has vowed that he will not rest until the girl is found, but three days in his team has nothing.

Tragic as it is, we’ve seen this before--on the daily news, in the paper, on Law and Order SVU, in the movies. 800,000 children are reported missing every year, with news of their disappearance permeating our society almost to the degree that abduction becomes as desensitizing a daily evil as political lies; a sound bite in our everyday soundtracks. It’s horribly sad but terribly true – most of us notice but devote little time to caring, maybe because we feel we’re powerless to stop it.

That’s how Patrick (Casey Affleck) and Angie (Michelle Monaghan) feel too. A couple of small time private detectives more experienced in finding deadbeat dads than their downtrodden children, they see the case on the news, react with the obligatory “this is horrible” moral toss-off, then try to avoid thinking about it. They certainly don’t want anything to do with the case when the sister-in-law and her brother come knocking – it’s not really their thing. What can they do? Ten minutes later, they’re not only convinced but on their way to devoted…and so are we.

Based on the novel by Dennis Lehane and adapted/directed by Casey’s fallen star brother Ben, Gone Baby Gone is a powerful and intimate journey to the other side of the sound bite, delving deep into the waters of societal obligation and moral ambiguity, and immersing itself in the case we’d rather avoid. As Patrick and Angie dig deeper into the case, sorting through family dysfunction, unwritten neighborhood laws and policemen with ulterior motives, we fall back into that familiar Mystic River world (another Lehane-based gem), amazed by the complexities of both the light and the dark sides of the human heart. This movie both blew me away and left me horribly distraught.

Why? Because all emotional stereotypes forgotten, this is one heck of a detective story, one in which right and wrong are not always clearly defined. The acting (from Morgan Freeman and Ed Harris as cops to Amy Ryan as the unkempt mother, to Affleck and his “Actor of the Year” campaign) is a work of understated brilliance, the story deceptively intricate and the direction an atmospheric masterpiece.

Never has the reality of Boston been captured like this. Whereas Marty glossed it over (in The Departed) and Clint painted it grey, Ben Affleck (Ben Affleck the director!) gives it authenticity. He captures every crack in the sidewalk, every creak in the triple decker, every fading Red Sox B, never glorifying or degrading but laying it out there as true. We can chalk it up to his native son status or Lehane’s incredible story foundation, but Affleck succeeds where most first time directors fail (and perhaps finally puts his bad rap to rest).

Personal and challenging, Gone Baby Gone is one heck of a movie. It’s at least as good as (if not better than) the movies mentioned above, and is most certainly the best film I’ve seen this year.

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