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Sunday, October 21, 2007

Gone Baby Gone

When I settled down to watch Gone Baby Gone at the Essex Cinemas this week I thought of a couple of things in the minutes before the lights went down. First, I was really p.o.ed that the movie was called Gone Baby Gone without punctuation as it should have been Gone, Baby, Gone or Gone Baby, Gone depending on the way the line is delivered and in what context. The way it plays with no punctuation makes it sound like some Elvis songfest set in Vegas back in the ‘60s, co-starring a skin-tight gold-lamé costumed Ann Margaret. I’m sorry, but it is the latent English teacher in me. I get excited over commas.

I knew the movie was based on a book by Dennis Lehane, who also authored Mystic River, which made for a great film starring Sean Penn, Kevin Bacon, and Tim Robbins back in 1993. Of course that film was directed by Clint Eastwood and this one is helmed by first time director (sort of) Ben Affleck, who has become somewhat of a national source of derision ever since his days linked with that big-butted singer J-Lo and the unfortunate tabloid merging of their names and individual personalities into the media scorning entity of “Bennifer.”
Now I will confess I have a soft spot in my soft spot for Ben Affleck and have ever since his glory days when he and Matt Damon won an Oscar for writing Good Will Hunting way back in 1997. I’ve enjoyed his contributions as an on-screen Executive Producer during the three years of HBO’s “Project Greenlight” series in which aspiring film makers were given a chance to make a million dollar budgeted movie with Affleck, Damon, and the ubiquitous Weinstein Brothers on hand as overseers. Still, the question always lingered ~ could Ben make a movie himself? It’s one thing to give advice but a whole other story when it’s you that is under the studio’s thumb to keep to a budget and a timetable on top of dealing with the gazillion day-to-day headaches that arise during any movie shoot. Oh sure, Ben did direct the notorious short I Killed My Lesbian Wife, Hung Her on a Meat Hook, and Now I Have a Three-Picture Deal at Disney in 1993, but he was a mere 21 and it is hardly something to be taken seriously, though it does make me question the legitimacy of calling him a “first time director” now even if he wishes I’d forget about Lesbian Wife. Anyway, Gone Baby Gone is definitely his first serious endeavor.

The second thing I contemplated in those few moments before the opening credits of the movie was about the subject matter of Gone Baby Gone. Since I had not read the book I only knew from some of the talk show pre-release publicity that the movie was about the abduction of a little girl and it reminded me of my own kidnapping fantasies I harbored growing up. Surely I am not the only one who felt this way, but I used to sit for hours on end, gazing strenuously into the mirror over my bedroom dresser searching for any signs in my face that would expose the fact that I was genetically at odds with the others in the house, proving that I had been kidnapped from my real parents as a baby and that someday the police would kick through the doors with guns drawn and then snatch me up and return me to my actual family, my loving, kind, fantastically wealthy and famous parents and to my cadre of brothers and sisters who faithfully lit candles and said a novena every night in the hope that this day would eventually come.

We don’t see movies with scenes like that even though it pretty much summed up all my free time throughout my childhood. Instead we get abduction dramas with a lot more gravitas that makes it look like a grim crime indeed. It certainly appears to be in Gone Baby Gone, but everything in this movie seems to be grim. Director Affleck has done a masterful job digging through the poorer neighborhoods of the greater Boston area to come up with some of the most startlingly “real people” images captured on-screen in years. The faces he uses as the background residents in the Dorchester neighborhood where the story of Gone Baby Gone takes place are downright fugly, not something you see in a Hollywood movie ever, well, unless you count those that star Andy Dick, Dwight Yoakam, or Tori Spelling.

Standing out in this throng, however, is Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck; The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford), way too handsome for this crowd, but what can you expect since this is an Affleck, but don’t let this seeming bit of nepotism fool you. This Affleck is a top-notch actor who doesn’t need his big brother getting him a job. It just happens that Ben recognizes talent and had an “in” to hire him.

Anyway, Patrick and his live-in girlfriend Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan; The Heartbreak Kid) are private detectives who are asked by Bea McCready (Amy Madigan; Winter Passing) to take up the case of her missing three-year-old grand-daughter Amanda (Madeline O'Brien; The Legend of Lucy Keyes), who has apparently been abducted from her bed while the girl’s mother was at a neighbor’s for a few minutes.

The little girl’s mother, Helene (Amy Ryan; Forward) is a lying mess in a dress, hanging out with a scary Mary named Dottie (newcomer Jill Quigg), who looks as if you twisted her arm like a wet wash cloth you could wring a bucketful of heroin out of it. Patrick and Angie are reticent to get involved in the case for any number of reasons, but since they need the money and figure the high profile of the investigation couldn’t hurt their chances for some positive publicity, and they do know the underbelly of the neighborhood, they agree to take a few steps, which lead to a few more, and then more after that until they are in so deep they can’t get out.
Bristling at their involvement is Boston’s Chief of Police Jack Doyle (Morgan Freeman; Evan Almighty), who is polite enough to the detectives, but who makes it clear that he feels that their presence is just a hindrance to his department’s work. Fortunately, his chief detective on the force, Remy Bressant (Ed Harris; Copying Beethoven) is more accommodating and appreciates Patrick’s willingness to dig deep, which he is better equipped to do as he grew up in the neighborhood and people there are more willing to talk with him and share what they know (and what they think they know) about the case, a lot of which pans out to be true.

Digging in this neighborhood though is like shoveling through a landfill ~ one full of drugs, booze, and frightening characters like drug lord Cheese (Edi Gathegi; Death Sentence) and bar fighter Lenny (Brian Scannell (of tv’s “Brotherhood"). Every time you turn over one pile you find something new and threatening along the way, whether it helps in the investigation or not.

What transpires in the search for Amanda results in a multi-layered plot that sends Patrick and Angie through a sewer of humanity, where they wade in red herrings right and left before finding the answer to what has become of the missing tot. What happens next is a riveting piece of cinema that is reminiscent of the conundrum faced by Meryl’s Streep’s title character in 1982’s Sophie’s Choice. While not the same decision, Patrick is faced with a moral dilemma that will have movie-goers arguing amongst themselves for hours if not days as to whether he made the right call, especially considering the dénouement Affleck (or rather both Afflecks) show us in the final scene of the film.

This is a rocking adult story that will test your brain and have you guessing throughout. It is also a real testament to director and co-writer Ben Affleck that he has a future behind the camera if he so desires. The guy can make a movie and it’s a home run his first (well, second) time at bat. Gone Baby Gone, commas or not, is a hit all the way.

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