Gone Baby Gone

dir: Ben Affleck
[img_assist|nid=42|title=I am not my brother's keeper|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=480|height=270]
To me, and I suspect a lot of other audience members, the concept of a film directed by Ben Affleck starring Casey Affleck seems like one of those perfect storm conditions for a Shit Storm of the Century-type of outcomes.

And setting it in Boston amongst working class, criminal and trashy Southies? That’s like a tornado inside a hurricane inside a campaign of sustained aerial bombardment hitting your trailer park.

The suburb of Dorchester, which is both the setting for the film and where the book’s author Dennis Lehane was birthed and growed, looks like the trashiest, grungiest shithole in America. Whatever initial claim it might have had to being the Irish heart of old Boston is long gone. It looks like the kind of place that not only houses the highest levels per capita of Jerry Springer viewers, but also the greatest amount of participants in the show.

Helene McCready (Amy Ryan) is just another one of these Southie scumbags, who manages to be repellent and compelling at the same time. She’s one of those alcoholic drug addicts who would probably start a lot of sentences with the phrase “Now I’m never going to win a ‘Mother of the Year’ award, but…” and then proves it with her behaviour on a continual basis.

None of this really matters except for the fact that Helene’s little daughter Amanda (Madeleine O’Brien) has gone missing. The daughter she’s been horribly neglecting seems to have been kidnapped, and, according to the police, it doesn’t look good for her chances of being found alive.

The police are all over the case, with press conferences and lots of people milling around on the street outside the McCready hovel, but Amanda’s auntie (Amy Madigan) decides to bring in some outside help. Because she, at least, really loves the child, as does her uncle Lionel (Titus Welliver).

When she hires private investigator Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck), it’s with the understanding that Patrick has connections amongst Boston’s scumbags and criminal underworld not available to the police. Patrick, who looks too young for his age, and who has an even tougher female partner Angela (Michelle Monaghan), overcompensates by being smarter and more prone to violence than you think such a chap should.

In trying to find Amanda, Patrick follows strange leads even when given access to police information that you think he would ordinarily not have access to. And you’d be right, because there are nefarious doings afoot simultaneously, because in the tradition of any detective story, contemporary or ancient, the PI can’t know what’s going on until the audience does.

At first they investigate the lies of Mother of the Year, who claimed initially that she was gone from the house when the daughter went missing for only a brief amount of time, and only in order to get a snifter of peach schnapps on the way back from choir practice. This leads Patrick and Angela to one of the first of many confrontations with the salt of the earth of Dorchester. A tense scene in Helene’s local bar establishes Patrick’s bona fides as a tougher guy than he looks.

For my money, it was the scene that sold the flick. Not the thugs acting like thugs and Patrick having to operate on their level, nor what seems like the easy resolution of the scene thanks to the timely intervention of a gun. The reason it worked and allowed me to enjoy the rest of the film, and to be surprised by it, is because Casey Affleck manages to make the scene and the character very believable.

It’s important because there are crucial scenes that follow where Patrick’s dancing on the razor-thin line between justice, whether legal or natural, and outright criminality. He faces, over the course of the story, two impossibly difficult situations where he has to make us believe the moral and emotional turmoil that he faces, because the choices are of catastrophic importance.

The plot seems to be going in one direction: that Amanda was kidnapped and is being held for ransom over drug money. In the ensuing confusion, Amanda is declared dead and everyone is supposed to move along, nothing to see here.

But Patrick remembers and notices the discrepancies in people’s stories. Something is decidedly not right about the scenario, seeing as it involves the curious complicity of various people and an aggressive police detective, Remy Bressant (Ed Harris in a wicked hairpiece), who seems comfortable with breaking the law in order to get a better result.

He repeats a few times about how much he loves kids. If that doesn’t strike fear into the hearts of audience members and parents worldwide, I don’t know what does short of the fact that Michael Jackson is a parent.

In following what seemed like an unrelated lead, Patrick enters a horror house of abuse and murder which tangentially reveals that almost everything he believed about Amanda’s case is wrong. It also leads to him making the decision to do the absolute Wrong thing for the Right reasons.

He is applauded and lauded for it, by the cops and by his partner, but he knows deep down that what he does is wrong. As events further transpire, before the end Patrick is forced to choose between doing the Right thing for the Wrong reasons, or the opposite yet again. And it’s a choice with devastating consequences.

I was quite surprised at how much I enjoyed this flick. The previous flick based on a Lehane book, directed into a ‘prestige’ Oscarbait potboiler being Mystic River left me very cold. Where others saw a tremendous collection of powerful acting and difficult subject matter, I saw a heap of overacted tripe left out in the Boston sun too long. This one has the moral murkiness and complexity that I can appreciate and understand.

It’s easy to hate Ben Affleck, predominately because he’s Ben Affleck. But he really does a decent job capturing not the milieu or the culture of these people, who really don’t strike me as that different from the rest of working class or marginalised America except for that accent, but really does honour the story to raise it up to be something more than just your usual mystery / police procedural.

Casey Affleck especially continues to impress, both with his work here and in another flick that came out last year, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. He is starting to shed the perception that he’s just a younger, dumber version of his older brother, or that he’s just a comic relief lightweight. He made me believe this character’s turmoil and his criminal’s sense of justice and morality. He, like almost every character in the flick except for mother Helene and the perverted denizens of the horror house, thinks he’s doing the best thing for the child whenever he makes his decision. But the film never lets him or anyone else off the hook for their decisions.

Everyone claims to do everything they do for the children, their own or the nebulous, abstract idea of this untapped and innocent resource lurking just outside of vision. Won’t someone please think of the children etc. The problem is, especially in the case of the state and law enforcement’s role in protecting children, the decisions hardly ever are cut and dry.

Australia still has lingering problems with decisions made many decades ago when it was deemed in the best interests of Aboriginal children to be taken away from their parents and given to other families or to workhouses masquerading as orphanages and boarding schools. The legacy of those decisions, and that arrogant position by which someone chooses what fate best befits another person’s children, has repercussions for centuries.

On the smaller scale, in the case of negligent parents, is the decision to make a child a ward of the state or to take them away from a fuckup mother ever an easy one? Can you know in advance what a child’s fate will be, comparing the two paths with the nexus being whether they’re taken away from one and given to another?

Gone Baby Gone doesn’t prepare to have the answers, nor does it pretend that there are clear identifiers to indicate what could be the best courses of action, or what the ultimate virtue of moral relativism is. It has a lot of characters who believe they are doing the right thing by a child, but who do great evil instead. And in the final simple, poignant frame, we wonder whether the final crucial decision Patrick made was the right one.

It takes a bold flick to follow a path from which closure and a clear destination point aren’t articulated. It takes a good one to make it work, which this one does.

Colour me impressed, against all my wishes and intentions. It’s a solid film which ends with a kick to the stomach, just like the best films and the best sex.

8 reasons why “It was an accident” said by such a scumbag character could prompt me to similar levels of divine retribution out of 10

“Now, I can't think of one reason big enough for him to lie about that's small enough not to matter.” – Gone Baby Gone.