Gone Baby Gone

Lost somewhere in the, uh, maelstrom that was “Bennifer”, that was the alcohol abuse treatment, that was the uneven acting performances, the record-breaking number of Razzies, was this talented and tragically good-looking guy named Ben Affleck.

Well, I guess we’ve never lost sight of his good looks. How could you really? He’s damn pretty.

But the talent part. Sometimes he’s damn good–like in Kevin Smith films and the underrated Hollywoodland—but he doesn’t seem to flourish in the big budget films. Sort of like Stallone following up the marble-mouthed Rocky with a series of mono-syllabic dim-witted action characters (Rambo, Cobra) people forget that he wrote Rocky, as well as most of his other films.

Affleck looks to be trying to stave off this kind of pigeon-holing both with his role as George Reeves and his direction of today’s movie, Gone Baby Gone. (Of course, he’s been trying to do this all along if the bit with Matt Damon in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back isn’t entirely parodic.)

So, how does he do?

Not bad. Not bad at all.

This movie is based on a Dennis Lehane novel and so invites comparison with Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River (by the same author) which, on the one hand, is a pretty gutsy move, but on the other hand–well, Lehane can clearly plot. Affleck’s not padding out Mousehunt, here.

The story concerns a missing girl incident of the sort anyone who’s ever flipped past “On The Record with Greta van Susteren” is familiar with. Casey Affleck and his girlfriend Michelle Monghan are private detectives/repo-men(?) who are hired by the family to augment the police investigation. As the story progresses, we learn more about the missing child’s mother, who is increasingly revealed as a horrible person, and responsible at some level for her child’s disappearance.

As with Mystic River, at the point where a normal detective story would end–the clues pretty much unravelled and the plot explained–this story goes on for another 20 minutes. In this 20 minuets, Lehane’s story presents us with a horrible moral dilemma.

I hated this in Mystic River more than Sean Penn’s Oscar-baiting hamfoolery, as I tend to hate all stories that try to tell us, in the end, man is far more degenerate than even we thought. (It’s sort of porn for cynical intellectuals and I think about as accurate as the sexual kind.) In Gone Baby Gone, however, the challenge is a lot more credible and interesting. And Casey Affleck’s decision is both more straightforward and more complex than the protagonist in “River”.

So, what do we have, once we distill all the Affleck-hype (positive and negative)? Surprisingly great performances from Casey and Michelle, predictably great performances from Morgan Freeman, Ed Harris and Amy Madigan, and also outstanding work from the lesser known John Ashton (as Ed Harris’ police partner), Amy Ryan (as the world’s worst mother) and Titus Welliver as her brother. (I found Titus Welliver’s performance particularly moving.)

Casey knocks it out of the park despite not looking the park at all. (He has more than a few of his brother’s mannerisms, too.) He has to be tough, smart, sensitive, brutal, etc. This is no easy role.

We also get a really good score from Harry Gregson-Williams, who seemed to be channeling the Newmans for this film. (A little bit Randy, a little bit Thomas.)

It didn’t hurt to have Academy Award winning John Toll behind the camera. The cinematography was just so: Not flashy or ostentatious, not lethargic, keeping pace with the story without trying to horn in on it.

One never knows, in the final analysis, what part the director plays (without having been on set) in creating a film. Some directors fit more into the auteur theory than others. And I suspect Ben Affleck’s benaffleckiness is going to encourage a “second shooter” theory.

But really, even if all he did was get out of the way and let everyone else’s talent do the heavy lifting, this is quite an accomplishment. (Movies where the various egos struggled behind the scenes to get their way don’t usually work out.)

In short, not only do I like this movie, I like what it portends for Ben Affleck’s career.

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