Tuesday, October 23, 2007

REVIEW: Gone Baby Gone

NOTE: This review does not contain specific plot-spoilers. It does, however, contain AFTER it's first two paragraphs discussions of theme which MAY make certain mysteries of the film more solvable than they are meant to be. Therefore, if you have not yet seen the film, I recommend that you do not read after that point (a secondary disclaimer will be in place.) I also recommend that you DO go see the film as soon as you possibly can. DO NOT wait for DVD. Thank you.

With one fell directorial swoop, Ben Affleck erases every single negative or dismissive thing that has been said, thought or written about him - justifiably or not - in the intervening years between "Good Will Hunting" and right this moment. Critics, audiences and late-night comedians have had a long run of fun mocking the former Mr. Jennifer Lopez, and I've indulged in perhaps more than my fair share myself; but that is and deserves to be the past. I won't say that he is owed his detractors' apology, but he is more than owed their respect. A corner has been turned, a bridge has been crossed, and whatever awful movies and tabloid nonsense still lingered is henceforth banished by one singular stunning event: Ben Affleck has directed what may be the best American movie of the year.

"Gone Baby Gone," directed/co-scripted by Mr. Affleck from the book by "Mystic River" author Dennis Lehane and starring his younger brother Casey in a starmaking turn, is an essentially flawless Boston Noir that feels from start to finish like the finely-polished effort of a seasoned professional rather than the first major effort of an actor-turned-director. Gutsy, grim, wrenching, heartfelt, real, raw, visceral, emotionally-challenging, viscerally-wrenching and immensely intellectually-satisfying. This is a crime story for the ages, a detective picture to stand with the all-time best. You owe it to yourself to see this film.

FINAL NOTE: If you have not yet seen the movie, you should not be reading after this point. You have been warned.

"The line between good and evil is murky. Nothing is as simple as black and white. There are no easy answers." Those three simple points have been the essential, all-encompassing theme, moral and message of nearly every true Film Noir since before the genre was even called that. In most "modern" Noir, these three almost always are presumed to lead to an innevitable fourth and final entry: "Therefore, nothing really matters, there's no reason to do the right thing and nihilism is the only escape." Here, in "Gone Baby Gone," we have the first real attempt to obliterate that Fourth Point and take the genre back to it's classical, pre-defeatist roots. To do so, it places at it's forefront a hero of realistic but none the less rock-solid moral and ethical conviction who's direct and confrontation with the foundation-rocking Three Simple Points serves to strengthen those convictions. Here is a hero who comes to learn, finally, that "there are no easy answers," and - rather than giving up on answers altogether, opts instead to dig in his heels and steel his resolve for the hard ones.

This would be Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck), a young-looking private detective working in his blighted South Boston neighborhood alongside his childhood friend and current partner/girlfriend Angela Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan) running down the missing persons who "started in the cracks and then fell through" - a two-fisted Nick & Nora of the Southie dive scene. At present, ("Baby" is the fourth book in the series,) the scene is dominated by the headline-grabbing kidnapping of a 4 year-old blonde moppet named Amanda McCready. It's not the sort of case they normally take, and Angela is profoundly uneasy about the prospect of having to find a "baby in a dumpster," but Good Catholic Boy Patrick can't say no when the girl's frantic aunt and world-weary uncle come asking for their help in their field of speciality: Gleaning info from elements of the neighborhood less-than-enthusiastic about talking to the police.

This is usually the part where the cops turn up and we're into "gumshoes vs. pros" turf-fighting... but no, not this time. The Captain (Morgan Freeman) is a seen-it-all old pro who lost his own child to abduction and fronts an elite squad dedicated to these cases, recognizes the potential help the P.I.s can be and makes his resources available in the form of two hard-bitten detectives (Ed Harris and John Ashton.) The case is grimy and nasty right from the start: The kid's mother is a frightfully unlikable alcoholic who barely seems to register awareness of the event. She's a liar, which complicates the matter, and a drug mule for a local Hatian kingpin, which really complicates the matter. As you might expect, this isn't "only" about a missing girl... or maybe it is.

And that's really all that should be said about the plot, as this quickly turns into the type of detective story that's less about solving a crime and more about unraveling the puzzle-box that the case has become. What you should know going in is that it's a revelation to watch, as pieces fall into place and an already stellar cast dives deep into the moral complexity (but NOT, importantly, moral ambiguity) that pulse alongside the dialogue and visuals with the realism of life-observed. The plot swells with colorful, grimy locales and grandly-motivated characters but always feels authentic and immediate. "The streets" and the crime that lives on them hasn't been this well captured in a very long time.

This is the one you need to see. This is the one you'll be sorry you missed. Get to the theatre, see this movie, thank me later.

FINAL RATING: 10/10