Gone Baby Gone
Perhaps one of the most heinous crimes imaginable are those perpetrated against children. They are among the most dependent and trusting members of our society and any act of violence against them deeply affects us all. This is the simple initial premise of the acclaimed film ‘Gone Baby Gone’. What starts as a typical kidnapping case rapidly descends into a turbulent world of drugs, deception and murder. The film was directed and co-written by actor Ben Affleck with astonishing results. Now there is an old adage in Hollywood that every director wants to act and every actor wants to direct. This is just an ancillary of the old grass is always greener rule of thumb and it seems to work well. While many actor that make the trip from in front of the camera to the big seat behind it come up short every so often one proves that he has been watching the great directors for years and is now ready to start a new career. Affleck is at the verge of joining other successful transitions like Clint Eastwood. There was no doubt that Affleck could cut it as a screen writer. His first screen play for ‘Good Will Hunting’ garnered Oscars for him and his writing partner Matt Damon. Now after a decade in away from the keyboard and in front of the camera Affleck demonstrates that he is truly a cinematic renaissance man. His partner this time out is new comer Aaron Stockard who could not have dreamed of a better way to get a foothold in the business. Okay, Ben was in ‘Gigli’ we all make mistakes but every great actor has a few bombs under the belts and this film more than redeems him.
The star of this directorial first for Affleck is his kid brother Casey. Some may scream nepotism but those allocations could not be further from the truth. The fact is Casey was the right choice for the role. It took ten years for Ben to return to script writing and to start a career as a director. Someone with such a high public profile and laudable reputation would risk throwing his younger brother a part just to keep peace at family get gatherings. The story is based on the novel of the same name by Dennis Lehane who also wrote ‘Mystic River’ turned into a film by Eastwood. For once a film with everything going for it not only meets expectations but exceeds them. There is any number of writers and directors that could have taken on this project. Most would have turned out a decently made movie. Affleck has gone beyond this by delivering a work of cinema that is consistent in its excellence. There is not a single frame of film that cries out to be cut; nothing that could be added to improve the work. To look at the acting career of Ben Afflick it has more than its share of ups and downs, like any working actor. The difference is Affleck obviously paid attention to what was going on around him. Sometimes you can learn what to do but observing less than stellar examples and Affleck has been absorbing technique all that time.
The film is set in a working class neighborhood of Boston. Affleck’s love for this town and neighborhoods like this is evident right from the start. Instead of placing the title and credits in large letters on the screen they are humbly written in small print tucked in the corners and edges of the screen. He wants us to know that the neighborhood is an important character of what is to follow. Patrick Kenzie, (Casey Affleck) works as a private investigator and has lived in this neighborhood all his life. As he states in his opening monologue that he finds the people who started in the cracks and then fell through them. The neighborhood is in turmoil. A four year old girl, Amanda McCready (Madeline O'Brien) has been kidnapped. Her mother Helene (Amy Ryan) is making an impassioned plea to the kidnappers before a group of reporters to return her child unharmed. In front of the cameras and microphones is the little girl’s aunt Bea (Amy Madigan) who joins with her daughter for the return of the child. Kenzie watches on this on the TV along with his partner and girlfriend Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan). That night Kenzie is visited by Bea and her husband Lionel (Titus Welliver) who want to hire him to find their nice. They feel that he knows people in the neighborhood who are not inclined to speak to the police and would therefore have a better chance at finding the missing girl. At first Angie is reluctant to take the case but the desperation of the aunt and uncle along with the determination of Kenzie win her over. They start the case at the home of the girl and her mother. For a mother who just had her only child grabbed Helene is extremely nonchalant and unwilling to cooperate.
Soon instead of unraveling the mystery gets deeper. It turns out that Helene is a cocaine addict. No surprise there. Her boyfriend,’ Skinny Ray Likanski’ (Sean Malone) has helped her steal $130,000 from the local drug kingpin. Along the way Kinzie and Angie cross paths with the two police detectives assigned the case, Detective Nick Poole (John Ashton) and his partner Detective Remy Bressant (Ed Harris). They are under the command of Captain Jack Doyle (Morgan Freeman) who heads up the ‘Crimes Against Children’ unit. An attempt is made to barter with the drug dealer for the money in exchange for the child. Things go horribly wrong and Amanda apparently drowns. Soon another child, this time a seven year boy, is kidnapped. It seems that every time one mystery is resolved two more pop up to replace it. In short order Kinzie and Angie are neck deep in a case that touches on police corruption, drugs and the possibility of pedophilia.
What gives this film such a tremendous impact is the setting. This is a neighborhood like so many of us have grown up in. This is not set in the esoteric surroundings of government offices or the board rooms of big corporations; it is a place just like millions of Americans have called home. This slams the story home with the impact of a sledge hammer. This is not to say that this is a brute force kind of film, it isn’t. There are subtle aspects to the film lurking just beneath the surface that show up when you least expect it. Many movies claim to have the audience on the edge of their seats but this one does it. With something this well crafted you have to start with an amazing script. Lehane’s novel is faithfully executed here by Affleck and Stockard. As he did with ‘Good Will Hunting’ Affleck writes about a neighborhood not unlike the one he grew up with. It is this familiarity with the people and places here that translates to honesty on the screen. Then there is his style as a director. Like many that made the move from one side of the camera to the other Affleck is an actor’s director. He assembled an incredible cast and let them tell the story. It appears that he just set things up and assured the flow of the picture and let his cast take over. Affleck is not the kind of director that relies on film school tricks or plays with the camera. He is straight forward with his direction and for a film like this it is perfect.
Speaking of the cast this is out of a filmmaker’s dream. Casey Affleck is incredible in this role. It suits him to a tee and he gives his all here. Like his big brother Casey understands the people depicted in this film. This allows him to inhabit his character seamlessly. Here he holds his own opposite some of the best the craft of acting as to offer. Ed Harris is the rare kind of actor who is able to hold in his emotional response until just the right time and then let it loose. He commands the screen in every scene he appears in. His real life wife, Amy Madigan has the concerned aunt part down pat. She is able to let the audience think one thing about her character and then turns things around on a dime. With Morgan Freeman in a film how can it go wrong? He is a master of his craft and excellent in this film. Michelle Monaghan also holds up well in this stellar company. She could have just been content with the normal side kick or girlfriend role but here she adds dimension that is a joy to watch. This film only received a single Oscar nomination which is a crime in itself. The nod for best supporting actress was well earned by Amy Ryan. She not only nails the difficult ‘Southie’ Boston accent she gives depth to the role of the unfit druggie mother.
This film is released on DVD by the grown up arm of Disney / Buena Vista, Mirimax. With this in mind there is little wonder that the DVD is excellent. The anamorphic 1.85:1 video is exceptional. The color palette and tonal balance is near reference quality. The Dolby 5.1 audio pulls you into the scenes and holds you there. There is a very well done commentary track with Ben Affleck and his writing partner. Together they fill in every detail of how personal bringing this film to the screen was for them. It also gives great incite into the process of a first time director. There is a behind the scenes featurette hosted by Ben. He is such a naturally funny person that this is far better than most of this type of extra. Then there is a look at the casting for the film. It covers not only the main roles but how the flavor of the neighborhood was created with the smaller roles. The deleted scenes have an optional commentary by Ben and Stockard. This is one film that should not be missed.