Gone Baby Gone (2007) dir. Ben Affleck
Starring: Casey Affleck, Morgan Freeman, Michelle Monaghan, Ed Harris
NOTE: It’s difficult to discuss this film without a general SPOILER warning as it makes for better analysis and discussion if I can be specific in my praise and criticism. So please beware.
“Gone Baby Gone” is a frustrating film. It’s a terrific first directorial effort for Ben Affleck, impressive both as director and co-writer, but he’s unfortunately hampered by unnecessary twists and turns of a story that probably sound better in a novel than on screen. It suffers from the same faults as “Mystic River.” “It’s like two completely different films, the first sails along building steam toward a tragic second act climax and the second doubles back on itself and destroys everything the film builds up in terms of tension and character.
Casey Affleck plays Patrick Kenzie, a young private investigator who works with his girlfriend Angie Gennaro in finding missing persons – usually drunken husbands who wander off after domestic disputes. But when Patrick and Angie are hired by the aunt and uncle of a young girl gone missing from a local Boston neighbourhood, suddenly the stakes in their job are raised to the highest levels.
Using his local neighbourhood connections Patrick leads Lt. Brassard (Ed Harris) and the police into the underground of Boston drug trafficking. Along the way we learn of several dramatic revelations about the case which test the personal ethics of Patrick. He’s forced to make life-changing decisions that affect him, his relationship with Angie and the fate of the lost girl.
Ben Affleck consciously announces to us that his film is ‘authentic’ Boston – the real Boston never seen on film before. Every scene seems to begin with a series of shots of real life Bostonians to remind us of its authenticity. His bar scenes are inhabited with real live Dorchester drunks and badass knuckleheads. Every conversation begins and ends with a series of ballbusting insults - a roll call of creative uses of motherfucker or cocksucker. At the top of the film these Mamet-like exchanges seemed self-conscious, but eventually these scenes actually blend into a good rhythm of naturalism. Affleck’s direction is competent and unflashy – a good choice considering the material - but considering the quality actors he’s assembled he had the best back-up available. And it’s actually Affleck’s writing (with co-writer Aaron Stockard) which deserves the most praise. So it’s official, “Good Will Hunting” was no fluke.
And then there’s the third act, which undermines all the praise I’ve noted above. For me “Gone Baby Gone” essentially ends with the scene after the nighttime shoot out in the home, and after Affleck’s and Ed Harris’ fantastic scene outside the police station. It’s a great acting showcase and a great exchange of dialogue. The film disintegrates from this point on. Dennis Lehane, the author of both novels undermines his own characters with the need to resolve the film like an Agatha Christie whodunit. If there are ten characters in the story one of them must the murderer. And it’s a damn shame.
There is a big difference between cinema-realism and the real world. There are decisions, choices and actions that are plausible based on the rules generated by the film being watched. This is cinema realism. These may be different than in the real world – what I call ‘real-realism’. There is a choice Patrick Kenzie is given late in the film which becomes the main talking-point about the film. Warning SPOILERS ahead….Patrick has a choice of whether to let the missing girl stay with her secret surrogate family (the kindly retired cop Morgan Freeman) or call the cops and send her back to her drug-addicted mother. In the real world there would be no choice because hiding the girl would make him an accomplice to kidnapping and send him to prison. But in cinema-reality the decision becomes interesting.
Thinking of the question from an idealistic point of view the movie can be profound, but only in the artificial Hollywood bubble world. The contradiction is that Ben Affleck fights so hard to make his Boston a real Boston – with real people on screen, not Toronto-faked-for-Boston - and so by giving his character these cinema-reality choices in the end is disappointing. This is why “Gone Baby Gone” is two different films – one good, one bad. I’m still on the fence.