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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Rewind Review: Gone, Baby, Gone (2007)

Director: Ben Affleck
Starring: Casey Affleck, Michelle Monaghan, Amy Ryan, Ed Harris, Morgan Freeman

Two years ago today I reviewed Gone, Baby, Gone as my very first post on this blog. Since then I've reviewed approximately 350 other movies, but naturally Ben Affleck's directorial debut has retained a special place in my heart for being the first. To celebrate my second blogging anniversary I thought it would be fun to look back at the movie that started it all and examine how (or, indeed, if) my feelings about it have changed in the last two years.

Gone, Baby, Gone, based on the novel of the same name by Dennis Lehane, is a morality play disguised as a crime drama. Its ending hinges on the question of whether the right thing is what is technically right, or whether the right thing can come from something that is technically wrong. It presents a world of moral murkiness and decisions that can seem simultaneously right and wrong. For example, it's wrong of Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) to shoot an unarmed child molester and killer in the back of the head. But, on the other hand, given the horrors the dead man inflicted on others, it feels more like a visit from karma than a perversion of justice. Similarly, it is wrong of the people who took Amanda McCready to take it upon themselves to decide that her mother is unfit and then bypass the law to remove her from her mother's care. But, learning what we do about her mother, Helene (Amy Ryan), through the course of the film... you can see their point. The greatest strength of the film is that it doesn't present a simple, watered down view of right and wrong; it asks difficult questions and then forces the audience to try to answer them.

The atmosphere of the film is established immediately as the camera pans through neighborhood streets and we're sunk into a world so insular that everybody knows everybody else, if not directly than through the chain of relationships. The film's depiction of place feels real and so do the characters in it. When Pulp Fiction came out, Quentin Tarrantino was praised to the heavens for his ear for dialogue, for the way that he crafted the interactions between his characters to get to the heart of their relationships with each other. Affleck and co-writer Aaron Stockard didn't receive such praise, but listen to the way the characters talk to each other. Listen to the way that Dottie (Jill Quigg) assesses Angie (Michelle Monaghan) upon seeing her for the first time since high school, or to the dialogue between Patrick, Angie and Helene as they drive to where Helene hid the money she ripped off from a drug dealer. These conversations recount a shared history that just bubbles up to the surface of the film and then goes under again, offering a glimpse of the story beyond the frames of the film.

I liked this film a lot when it first came out - though "like" seems an inappropriate word to apply to something this dark - and really only had a couple of issues it. One was the use of flashbacks, which aren't quite as intrusive as I'd remembered. The other was the film's depiction of Angie, which I still find problematic. Gone, Baby, Gone is one in a series of books by Lehane, all of which I've read multiple times. One of the things I like about the books is that Angie is so kick ass, but the film version of the character is a shadow of the original and I find that extremely disappointing. To take a character that compelling and remove all vitality from her so that she's little more than an appendage for the male hero is the adaptation's one glaring weakness.

For her role in this film Ryan received an Oscar nomination as best supporting actress and seeing the performance again reconfirmed for me how deserving a winner she would have been (the award that year went to Tilda Swinton for Michael Clayton). It would be easy to say that any actress could have secured a nomination playing this role; the character has a lot of meat to it and it's a strong role before any performer ever gets theirs hands on it. But, nevertheless, Ryan's depiction of Helene amounts to more than simply showing up. She seems to approach the character from the inside out, rendering a lived-in performance that in fact makes the "performance" aspect disappear. She's at ease with this character and unafraid of looking foul and in her truthful, no holds barred portrayal she makes Helene entirely her own.

As I write this, Affleck is at work on The Town, his second feature as director. If what he achieves with Gone, Baby, Gone is any indication, The Town will be a film to watch for. His work here is strong and assured and he has a firm grasp of how to create and maintain tension throughout a story. He's a good director with a great deal of potential - let's just hope the projects he choses as director are closer to Good Will Hunting than Gigli.


Alex said...

Congratulations on 2 years of blogging!

I haven't seen this movie since it was in theaters, and it was nice to remember it through your post. I haven't read the book, so I didn't know about the changes to Angie's character. I remember wishing that she had been given more to do, since I like Michelle Monaghan, so it's too bad the writers made the decision to weaken her character. I'm interested to see what Affleck's next film is like!

Anh Khoi Do said...

Congratulations on 2 years of blogging!

Speaking about the film's script, I certainly liked the fact that it asks us whether one can believe himself/herself as being above the law when it comes to defining what's good for a child. The only reservation I had, at the time the film was released, was at the end. In fact, as everything was finally revealed, I was expecting a fiery debate between Patrick and Angie regarding ethics and thought that the exchange between them at the end was too short (or even absent). However, two years later, I believe that Affleck directed the actors quite well so that we can have a good understanding of the leading characters' inner thoughts at the end through a scarcity of spoken words.

filmgeek said...

I was surprised by how much I loved this film. Like you I wonder how it is possible to like a film so dark but it is so well made and Affleck exceeded my expectations as a director

Norma Desmond said...

@Alex: The character in the book is awesome and generally comes across as a lot tougher than Patrick, which is maybe the root of the change: can't have the male lead looking wimpy, even if it's only by comparison.

@Anh Khoi Do: I agree with you that the debate at the end is a bit short. However, I think it puts just enough in there to make the audience ask what the right thing to do would have been, which is why the ending is so resonant.

@filmgeek: I remember going into the film with fingers crossed, worried about Affleck's ability to tackle such a big narrative as his debut. I was relieved at how well he pulled it off - he's definitely got some skill as a director.

The Mad Hatter said...

Happy Blog-a-versary!!! With so many would-be bloggers folding up tent after three months, two years is quite the achievement. Keep the good work coming.

As for GBG, I loved it, and was actually caught off-guard by how good it was. Of course, i had to watch it twice since the first dvd I rented had a scratch problem...every time a character pulled a gun in a tense scene, the dvd skipped ahead past the outcome of the stand-off.

Norma Desmond said...

@Mad Hatter: Wow, if it skipped every time a character pulled a gun you must've only been able to see, what, like 30 minutes of it? Although, if it had skipped every time someone swore, the run time would be down to about a minute and a half.

M. Carter @ the Movies said...

Being a huge Dennis Lehane fan, I was overjoyed to hear "Gone, Baby, Gone" was to become a movie ... then the joy faded away when I heard Ben Affleck was directing. Haven't been a fan of Ben since his "Chasing Amy" days, but damn if he didn't shut me up quick with this movie! He has a patient style that reminds me of Clint Eastwood -- who directed Lehane's equally fantastic "Mystic River" -- and seems to trust his actors to find the characters and give their best performances. Based on "Gone Baby Gone," I'd say Ben might yet have a bright future in directing.