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Film Review: Gone Baby Gone

Gone Baby Gone (2007; Directed by Ben Affleck)

Adapted from Dennis Lehane’s novel about a kidnapped child from the working-class South Boston neighbourhood of Dorcester and the effort to uncover what has become of her, the feature directorial debut of Ben Affleck shares many of the hallmarks of his next effort, The Town. Like that more prominent bank heist thriller, Gone Baby Gone concerns the rough-hewn, crime-inflected lifestyle of the city’s lower-income whites in contrast to the stony police who operate in their midst, flushing out the illegality from the socioeconomic undergrowth like so many beaters on a grouse hunt.

Dotting his film with overhead vistas of the Boston area and street-level sweeps of lived-in urban grime, Affleck is highly skilled at establishing an overpowering (even suffocating) sense of location, a setting given colour and nuance by the local dialects that he and co-writer Aaron Stockard place into their characters’ mouths. Such auteurly expressions of local pride aside, Affleck emerges in this initial effort as nothing if not a highly competent but decidedly non-ingenious genre filmmaker (his highly-praised latest film Argo manages to shake off such generic shackles, or at least combines enough of them seamlessly enough to approximate creative liberty). Lehane’s trademarked style of twisting, talky thriller plots set in the Beantown metropolitan (he also wrote Mystic River and Shutter Island) proves a snug fit for Affleck’s working-class authenticity act; The Town would largely replicate this tendency, and push it just a bit too far, especially with Affleck’s own criminal with a heart of gold.

It’s fortunate for Gone Baby Gone that the elder Affleck stays behind the lens, allowing his scrawnier, infinitely more interesting kid brother Casey handle the principled proletarian lead part of private investigator Patrick Kenzie. Kenzie comes across as the sort of guy who doesn’t fit into the crude over-masculinized social infrastructure of a white ghetto like Dorcester, but makes up for it with intelligence, sympathy, and even an outsized bravado that disarms potential rivals, not to mention a network of key contacts (including a drug dealer who directs him to an important clue). What he finds in his search for the truth about the young girl’s disappearance threatens his life, his relationship with his girlfriend and fellow P.I. (Michelle Monaghan), and ultimately his keenly-defined sense of right and wrong.

In a genre exercise of this sort, one looks to individual performances for hints of distinction. Affleck collects a fine cast, including Amy Madigan and Titus Welliver as family members of the vanished girl, a memorable Amy Ryan as her troubled, tweaking mother, and Ed Harris and Morgan Freeman as the Boston cops whose begrudging lack of cooperation with Kenzie’s investigation becomes more darkly meaningful as the plot corkscrews towards it ambiguous conclusion.

Employing the iconically upstanding Freeman as the fulcrum point of Gone Baby Gone’s unsettling of moral heteronormativity might be Ben Affleck’s canniest move in this film. Without giving too much away, the revelation of the kidnapped Amanda’s fate complicates our assumptions by introducing the cold absolutes of socio-economic class difference into the ethical equation. Freeman, whose latter-day screen career has seen him uplift and even transcend the “magic negro” stock stereotype without ever really stepping outside of it, is generally a reliable hitching-post for audience sympathies. Affleck sets up an essential closing dichotomy that tugs at this tendency with opposing conceptions of The Right Thing To Do, a dichotomy that also sets Kenzie and his girlfriend at direct odds. This choice, alongside a few other casting selections, a sense of location and visual sweep, and a mastery of genre storytelling, suggests more than anything else in Gone Baby Gone that Ben Affleck might have more to contribute to the movies behind a camera than he ever managed to give them in front of one.

Categories: Film, Reviews
  1. February 10, 2013 at 8:36 pm

    Great review, I really love this movie

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