(This Post is being published for Scenes of the Crime blogathon under category Mysteries/Thriller. Ben Affleck I felt was always better behind the camera than in front of it. As a screenwriter he gave us Goodwill Hunting, and here in his directorial debut, he handles a morally complex issue with sensitivity and restraint, not going overboard much)
Spoiler Alert: Some key scenes in the movie are discussed, readers please note.
Life as the cliche goes is not a matter of black and white, there is a whole lot of gray in between. You do something which is not morally right, but when taken in the whole context of the situation, it looks the right choice. Every stage you are confronted with a situation, where you have to take a choice, that conflicts with your conscience, your sense of right and wrong. And thats when the questions start to come up in your mind. You find it hard to take a stand, as every one involved around are not the type you can cast in black and white.
Ben Affleck’s directorial debut Gone Baby Gone, looks at this grey area between good and bad, or what we call the morally ambivalent core. The moral ambivalence that Patrick Kenzie( Casey Affleck), a small time private investigator, living in along with his partner-cum-girlfriend Angie Gennaro( Michelle Monaghan), has to face at key stages in the movie. The movie opens with credits rolling along, zooming on to a poster of a small 4 year old girl kidnapped from her home, and her mother Helene McCready( Amy Ryan), making a plea on TV for return of her missing daughter. What is significant here is the way Affleck sets up the scene here, the camera cuts from Helene’s tearful face, to shots of the working class neighborhood, the TV crews everywhere, and the residents just lazing around. You have some watching it disinterestedly, some playing around, and the TV anchors having a field day, and thats when the basic fact hits you. What is essentially a personal tragedy has been converted into a 24 hour media circus, for people to gape and enjoy it. Or maybe the excitement is due to the fact that the missing girl is white, as Patrick says.
Look at this. Jesus. Fucking bloc party here. Four Cape Verdeans got killed here last year. No one gave a shit.
And things are not made better by Helene herself, a typical white trash single mom, living off welfare, sleeping around with guys, having drugs. Which is what prompts Helene’s brother Lionel, and her sister in law, Beatrice to approach Patrick and Angie for tracking down the missing kid, Amanda. Angie is reluctant to take up the case, as she would not want to find the kid somewhere in a dumpster. Patrick however reassures here, and slowly they start digging into the case. They discover that Helene and her boyfriend “Skinny Ray” had stolen money from a local drug lord, but before they could go further they find Ray trussed up and killed in his home. This prompts the police Chief Capt Jack Doyle( Morgan Freeman) to get Patrick and Angie, to team up with the investigating detectives Nick Poole and Remy Bressant( Ed Harris). As the team digs deeper into the case, they enter into a murky world of drug dealing, child molesters, kidnappings that makes the waters even muddier. And an attempt to secure the kids release from a pay off to Cheese, a local drug lord, goes wrong, and Amanda the kid is presumed dead in the shoot out.
Doyle, whose own daughter was kidnapped and murdered some time, back takes the rap for this, and resigns. Couple of months later, a 7 year old boy is abducted by Corwin Earle, a notorious child molester. Corwin lives in a run down house with his associates Leon and Leon’s wife Roberta, who are coke addicts. After confirming that the kid is indeed with Corwin, Patrick, attacks his home along with Nick and Remy. Nick however is badly injured, and Patrick rushes inside however to find the kid already dead, and he shoots Corwin in a fit of anger. Patrick however carefully sets up evidence, that Corwin died in a shoot out, though he feels guilty of it later. Remy however feels that what Patrick did was right, and in a drunken mood confesses that he had taken the help of “Skinny Ray” to set up evidence on some one. He justifies it saying that the guy was an absolute scum, and he had saved his son’s life by doing it. Patrick is shocked, not so much by Remy’s confession, but by the fact that Remy claims to have known Ray, something he had denied the first time he met Patrick.
I had never liked Ben Affleck much, maybe it was due to the fact that i initially watched him in flicks like Armageddon and Pearl Harbor. And then add to it, his countless stinkers this decade, through which he just seemed to be sleep walking. I was later surprised to know that he in fact had won an Academy Award for the script of Goodwill Hunting, along with Matt Damon. And i really liked his performance in Goodwill, especially in the scene where he asks Damon to go out of his comfort zone, and achieve to his potential. So why was he screwing up his career with such dud movies and listless performances i was wondering. Thankfully he did come back with a solid performance in the noirish thriller Hollywoodland, and Gone Baby Gone confirms the fact that he indeed could do better behind the camera than in front of it.
It could be the fact that Ben finds telling a story easier than acting it out, considering Goodwill Hunting is surely one of the best scripts in recent times. And for an actor who has appeared mostly in forgettable mainstream Hollywood junk, he adopts a narration that is restrained, matured, intelligent, not going over the top at any stage. Nothing illustrates it better than the way he handles the relationship between Patrick and Angie. The love between them is shown in a way, that is restrained, yet something you can feel. No hot scenes, showing the couple making it out under the sheets, nor do you have too much mushy dialogues professing eternal love. Its something absolutely realistic, natural and does not hamper with the narration. Nothing better than the final scene, where Angie pleads with Patrick to reconsider his “decision”, and Patrick trying to convince her. Totally restrained and natural, without descending into mush land.
But considering that the movie deals with a whole set of complex, interwined issues, it needed a restrained approach, and thats where Ben Affleck scores big time. Now again, if we take the scene, where Patrick gets to know the real truth, and has a showdown with Doyle. Here again considering that the movie was also looking at the larger issue of children, and parental neglect, it could have become totally preachy. But again the discussion between Doyle and Patrick, while touching the main issue, does not become too preachy. And that for me is something, considering the fact that Morgan Freeman has a tendency to get into preachy mode in many of his movies. Its refreshing to see Morgan Freeman doing something from his usual Wise Mentor roles that he had been doing in many movies of late.
True to its noirish sensibilities, Gone Baby Gone, gets into the grey territory between good and bad. This is a movie where you are not even sure, who is good 0r bad. Patrick has this Catholic conscience thing, but when you see him take the “contentious” decision, in the end, you are not sure whether he has done right or wrong. At one level, you simply can’t find yourself to empathize with what Patrick has done, but then you find that Affleck has set up the character’s ethical dilemmas in the earlier scene, where he feels guilty of planting evidence on a suspect. The conflict here however is that Patrick is not exactly sure of his actions, something which Doyle also points out later. He is the kind of person who acts and then repents on it later. Remy on the other hand, is the person who feels that the “means justifies the end”. He has a kind of vigilantist tendency to punish the law breakers hook or crook, he has no qualms about manipulating the law, as long as it teaches a lesson to the scum, or at least what he feels the scum are.
Both Doyle and Remy have a visceral hatred for the child molesters and neglectful parents, due to their personal experiences. Doyle lost his daughter, while Remy was an eye witness to a kid totally abused and neglected by his father. And that makes us ask why? Why is that we are unable to protect our kids? Is a missing kid just a statistic, or an occassion to be made into a media circus? Also every one seems more interested in their own motivations. Helene is more interested in showing herself off as a victim, while Patrick seems more looking at his conscience, but who really cares about Amanda. None seems to really care of her feelings. The ending is scary and frightening, because the kids seem to be growing up in an environment where the parents dont seem to know about them nor even care for them. Being a Dad myself, it had me asking, do i really know about my daughters? Do i really care for them?
Gone Baby Gone is not an easy movie, because it forces us to question our choices, it forces us to look at our sense of right and wrong, but most importantly it forces us to look the kind of atmosphere we have created for ourselves. It is not your standard pop corn movie, where you see Bruce Willis blowing up the bad guys, and you walk out fine. This is a movie that makes you question, makes you think, makes you re consider. It is a movie that makes you debate the motivations and actions of every character. Affleck also does an excellent job of capturing the grimy working class neighborhood of Dorchester near Boston. You can actually feel the dirt, the grime, the despair, as the camera tracks along the lanes, the sidewalks, the run down homes. Like Martin Scorcese in Mean Streets, Ben Affleck brings Boston alive in a way few movie makers have done.
The more i see of Casey Affleck, the more i ask why he does not appear more. He was superb in “The Assasination of Jesse James” and he is equally brilliant, especially in the final scene. Gone Baby Gone is truly a breakthrough for the Affleck brothers, one in front of the camera and another in front of it. Michelle Monaghan also does an effective job, not going too overboard. Ed Harris one of the more underrated actors, is fabulous as Remy, especially in the scene where he confesses to have set up some one. And its quite refreshing to see Morgan Freeman in a role, that is no nonsense, straight to point and does not preach around too much.