' Cinema Romantico: Gone Baby Gone

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Gone Baby Gone

Particular films give off an aura of greatness right from the start. "Gone Baby Gone" is one of the few. It's a voice-over given by the main character Patrick (Casey Affleck) with various shots of Boston. This opening is key because it shows us the movie will allow itself to breathe. We don't jump instantly into plot and story. The scene is being set. And the scene in this movie is a major player.

Okay, midway through there's another voiceover that's absolutely atrocious. There are also far too many little quick-cut scenes where we see things that have happened already to provide us hammered-home clues about the mystery aspect of the film. And the conclusion gets a bit too talky. But these are all little things and I'm getting them outta' the way at the forefront because essentially the rest of the film is perfect.

The story is this, Amanda, a four year old girl, has been kidnapped. Police Chief Doyle (Morgan Freeman) heads up the investigation. But the Uncle and Aunt of Amanda, who seem more like her actual parents since Amanda's mother Helene (Amy Ryan) is a drunk and heavy into drugs, go to Patrick and Angie (Michelle Monaghan) who are private investigators as well as lovers to conduct an investigation of their own since they may be able to talk to the sort of people who won't talk to police. Doyle finds out about Patrick and Angie and rather than chasing them away suggests they team up with Remy (Ed Harris) and Nick (John Ashton) the two detectives working the case. That's the set-up and there's much, much more that follows but don't think this is merely some police procedural.

You may have heard the film was directed by an actor, one Ben Affleck. It's his debut behind the camera, and a stunning debut it is. He does not fall victim to the classic Actor As First-Time Director Syndrome, wherein the person running the show fills it with oodles of directorial flourishes to impress upon the viewer what visionaries they are. Think George Clooney's first outing as director, "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind", which was loaded with all kinds of annoying filmmaking tricks. Affleck trusts his story (perhaps because he was a screenwriter first). The camera refuses to get all herky-jerky. The suspense scenes are actually suspenseful because of the skillful way they are done. The camera moves but doesn't scream - hey! Look at me! I'm moving! A lot of the scenes boldly forgo music, drenching them in nearly unbearable reality. There are no moments where the door opens and then a loud piano chord is played. (The few tiny flaws I mentioned can probably be attributed to the fact he is a first-time director, or you could even argue it's something the editor should have been able to catch.)

Affleck creates an amazing sense of place. Is Boston really like this? I don't know. I'm not a Bostonian. But the setting onscreen is as vivid you will ever cinematically get. The performances only enhance it. The younger Affleck does great work here as someone who knows the neighborhood inside and out. He's bold, yes, but you can also see the caution and hesitation there. He has moments where he's trying to intimidate someone but you can see where he's also hoping that someone won't call him on it. Monaghan brings a proper sense of world-weariness, someone who doesn't necessarily enjoy her line of work. Notice the shot where Helene is in the backseat of the car blathering on and the camera lingers on Monaghan and her reaction. Harris and Freeman are, of course, good but that goes without saying. But the best work in the film comes via Amy Ryan (who I'm unfamiliar with) as Helene. She's all over the map, an obvious headcase. I loved the moment when she grabs the six-pack during the interrogation.

You feel like you're listening in on real life. It's not a genre movie. The clues of the case become less important than the big picture. It reminded me a lot of "Chinatown". (Anyone who knows me knows I think "Chinatown" to be the greatest film ever made and so believe me when I say it's not a comparison I make all willy-nilly.) Much like "Chinatown" evoked an older, less glamorous Los Angeles, "Gone Baby Gone" evokes a seedy, dirty Boston. Many scenes are set in bars and the homes these characters live in look like the real homes in which they would live and not just visions of the art department. Patrick stays on this case not necessarily because he feels duty-bound, or any other cliche you can think of, but because he seems to be tired of everyone lying to him about everything. And through the course of his investigation the mysteries of life and right and wrong are revealed. But it's not forced and (for the most part) not spelled out. It emerges via the case. And that's how a movie transcends it genre.

At the end, a particular character has to make a certain decision and as I watched it I realized I had no utterly no idea what the character would choose. It could have gone either way. It was as refreshing a movie-going moment as I've had in quite awhile.

Perhaps it's needless to say at this point but I'll say it anyway - "Gone Baby Gone" is one of the best films of the year.

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