Gone Baby Gone

Gone Baby Gone Gone Baby Gone
Casey Affleck, Morgan Freeman, Ed Harris

4.5 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson

Don’t cringe or chuckle when you see Ben Affleck’s name on the screen followed by the unlikely titles of director and screenwriter. “Gone Baby Gone” is a much better film than almost everything Affleck’s ever acted in, and it owes its success to a brilliant cast and Affleck’s ability to turn the suburbs of Boston into a central character.

The opening of “Gone Baby Gone” sets the viewer down in the middle of a media circus. A child, Amanda McCready, is missing from one of Boston’s congested, working class neighborhoods. Helene, her single drug huffing mom (marvelously trashy Amy Ryan), puts on a concerned front for the cameras, but in private, lounging on the couch in her seedy apartment, she’s more concerned about where her next high is coming from than her daughter’s safe return. Amanda’s aunt (tough love personified in the person of Amy Madigan) and uncle (working stiff Titus Welliver) hire a pair of young private investigators, Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro (boyish Casey Affleck, and the brains of the outfit, Amy Monaghan) to supplant the police department’s search, which after three days appears to have already reached a dead end.

The two P.I.s work with a pair of detectives, unsupportive, tightly wound Remy Bressant (another top flight portrayal by Ed Harris), and bearish Nick Poole, (seasoned pro John Ashton). The teams are supervised by Captain Jack Doyle (the always authoritative Morgan Freeman). This Captain Jack won’t get you high tonight -- Freeman’s Doyle is a decorated veteran who gets results and is as skeptical as Bressant of Kenzie’s abilities:

Doyle (speaking to Angie): How old is he?

Angie: Thirty-one. He just looks young for his age.

Doyle: He may look young, but if he wants to work this case, he’d better not act it.

While grilling Helene, the investigators discover a jarringly plausible reason for Amanda’s disappearance – Helene and her junkie boyfriend stole $130,000 from local drug lord “Cheese” (As in “The big…”). Cheese is conveyed by Bernie Mac double Edi Gathegi, who’s about as threatening as a stoned Teletubby, even after he pulls out a gat as big as one of Bob Marley’s spliffs. With the exception of one crucial line, Gathegi’s ganja-dipped diction is simply too hard to follow. When questioned by Kenzie, Cheese vehemently denies kidnapping Amanda, coming up with the movie’s signature line (and title): “If that girl’s only hope is you I pray for her because she’s gone, baby, gone…”

Cheese flips, supposedly fessing up to Captain Doyle in a taped conversation that he’s got Amanda and he’s willing to trade the child for his money. Remy, Nick, Kenzie and Angie arrange to make the exchange at a quarry, but gunfire rings out in the dark, Cheese winds up with more holes in him than his namesake (Swiss), and Amanda is believed to have drowned. The case is closed, leaving Kenzie and Angie to deal with their guilt at having failed to save Amanda.

Days later, a young boy is abducted in Dorchester. Kenzie is pulled into the new case by an informant who knows where the boy is being held. Contacting Remy and Nick, the three men attempt to free the boy and bring the pedophile holding him to justice. Approaching the house, the trio gets involved in a deadly shootout. As Remy tries to get in from the back, Kenzie storms through the front door. Shooting it out with an irate junkie, Kenzie blasts his way to the upstairs chamber of horrors where the boy is being held captive. What Kenzie finds curdles his insides, and drives him to commit an unspeakable act he would have deemed impossible before Amanda’s disappearance. Speaking afterward with Bressant, Kenzie wonders if he did the right thing. Under the influence of the bottle they’re sharing, Bressant admits he once planted an evidence to save an abused child:

Bressant: …So I went back in there. I out an ounce of heroin on the living room floor and I sent the father on a ride, seven to life.

Kenzie: That was the right thing to do?

Bressant: F****in’ A! You got to take a side! You molest a child, you beat a child and you’re not on my side. If you see me coming you’d better run because I’m gonna lay you the f**k down!

You might think “Gone Baby Gone” is history after the shootout when the loose ends for both cases appear to be tied up. But Kenzie discovers Bressant knew about Cheese’s stolen money before he did and the taped conversation between Cheese and Doyle never happened because the police aren’t allowed to tap the precinct phone. Doyle’s earlier statement to Kenzie that he’d lost his own daughter when she was kidnapped and wouldn’t lose Amanda sticks in Kenzie’s craw and becomes the impetus for his own investigation into the web of lies surrounding Amanda’s disappearance and death.

“Gone Baby Gone” proves that the best actors make their characters so realistic they’re not playing a role, they’re living it. Even the neighborhood toughs, non actors who inhabit the Fillmore Bar, play convincing rummies who’d rather administer a fearful beat down than betray a friend. As Detective Remy Bressant, Ed Harris plays a hardened veteran of the streets who’s not afraid to plant evidence or resort to blackmail in order to solve a case. To him, it’s a war of attrition between the cops and the dregs that make their living off of innocent people, and the dregs are winning. Harris is clenched anger and determination, once a hero who became a bully so focused on winning he doesn’t care who he has to bulldoze to achieve his goal. Harris remains one of the screen’s most convincing character actors, with or without the hairpiece.

Casey Affleck’s tense Patrick Kenzie serves as a surprisingly game foil to Harris’ Bressant. Kenzie’s by-the-book morality complicates his relationship with Angie and puts another character’s future in jeopardy. When the moral compass swings in Kenzie’s direction, you’ll either say “No he didn’t!” or applaud Kenzie’s actions.

A slight kick in the pants of the film’s credibility is Affleck’s lack of physical stature. Let’s face it, Casey’s youthful David Byrne features make him look like he’s barely legal, but his brother, Ben, skillfully weaves Kenzie’s less than fearful appearance into the plot. When the liquored up denizens of the Fillmore lock the door on Kenzie and Angie and one volunteers to show Angie a good time, rail-thin, bug-eyed Kenzie pistol whips him, backing out of the door while still verbally jousting with the mountainous bartender. Most scripts would call for the hero to mop the floor with the foul-mouthed patrons and walk out proudly with the girl on his arm, but the characters in “Gone Baby Gone” are refreshingly real. Cracking a salivating would-be rapist in the skull with a gun barrel is hardly heroic, even if he deserves the headache, but it’s a true to life response. Kenzie is lucky to get out of the bar with his skin and he knows it, hyperventilating nervously after he and Angie escape.

My only complaints about Affleck’s actual performance are minimal. (You know me, I gotta complain about something!) Despite the plots intricate twists and turns, despite having committed an act in direct conflict to Kenzie’s moral code, Affleck’s conflicting emotions seldom register on his face. Sometimes his expression shifts to a frozen mask of anxiety, making Affleck look like a constipated wax figure. The puppet can act, but there has to be something going on internally -- Kenzie’s tortured dialogue tells us so, so there should be more going on externally than a twitch or a grimace. It’s disconcerting that life changing events that would have shattered even the grittiest individual seemingly bounce off of Kenzie’s heart like bullets hitting Superman’s chest. If anything, Kenzie becomes more steadfast in his beliefs, when his recent experiences should have made him realize life can’t always be judged by section three of the penal code. I was also perplexed by Affleck’s Boston accent, an over boiled, forced “park the cah in Havard yahd” parroting at the beginning of the movie. (It’s as if Affleck wanted to tap the audience on the shoulder and say, “See, we’re in Boston”). Affleck frequently loses his accent and sounds less genuine than Amy Ryan, which is ironic, given he’s a Boston native and Ryan’s accent is a well rehearsed and accurate put on.

The drugged-up, fed-up, screwed up Helene portrayed by Amy Ryan is the type of tough Bostonian I knew when I went college -- potty-mouthed, neglectful of her friends and family and loyal to whomever has the next hit or snort -- A real joy to be around! You think New Yorkers are tough? Try living in Dorchester or one of Boston’s other closely knit Irish neighborhoods. Helene is the type of woman you want to like. She’s obviously got it rough -- she’s raising a daughter on her own for starters -- but she’s too much of a self-absorbed party hound to care about her child or anyone else. Ryan nails every despicable facet of her character, the drug abuse, lack of conscience or responsibility, and whorish lifestyle. When you listen to Ryan talk about her character in the film’s extras and realize she’s the exact opposite of Helene, you’ll breathe a sigh of relief, and then wonder why her challenging performance didn’t win an Oscar.

Amy Monaghan can watch my back in a fight anytime. She’s the opposite of Helene, equally tough, but ingrained with a keen sense of right and wrong. She deplores Helene’s slutty lifestyle and is reluctant to take the case because she doesn’t want to see Amanda’s body in a dumpster (where she fears it already is) or hear that the little girl was abused. Monaghan looks like your best friend’s sister, the neighborhood girl you know will wind up with 2.5 kids and a seat on the P.T.A.

I’m convinced Morgan Freeman could play an authority figure from the grave. He’s played teachers, friars, the President of the United States … He’s played God, for God’s sakes. His effortless but effective performance bubbles beneath the surface of the countless plot twists, and he’s even off-screen for a healthy portion of the film, which makes him appear as if he’s one of the few characters without a secret agenda.

John Ashton’s authority lies in his hulking physical presence. His Nick Poole is Bressant’s loyal conspirator right or wrong. Amy Madigan is unrecognizable as Bea McCready, Amanda’s aunt and the family’s moral center who cares more about her niece than her own mother. Madigan’s maternal moral fiber is an amusing contrast to Ryan’s anything goes tramp and the two actresses tear each other apart with the type of verbal skill only relatives who genuinely hate each other share. When they’re on screen together the claws and salty insults come out and everyone within ear shot had best be prepared to have their ears singed.

Titus Welliver may not be a name that comes trippingly off of the lips, but I can guarantee you’ll recognize his face (Silas Adams in “Deadwood” and Dr. Eric Hackett in “That’s Life”). Unlike Affleck, when Welliver affects his heavy working man’s Bostonian accent it stays with him throughout the picture. Welliver’s Lionel McCready makes a point of telling everyone he “Put the plug in the jug twenty-three years ago,” automatically making him a more sympathetic and caring character than Helene. Watching Welliver’s dutiful Uncle Lionel slowly crumble as he downs shots of Cutty Sark is one of the film’s most difficult and revealing scenes.

The title of Ben Affleck’s major motion picture directorial debut may be “Gone Baby Gone,” but his career as a major talent behind the camera is just beginning… baby.

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