By Brian Rentschler
Short version: One of the best movies I have seen this year… highly recommended.
What comes to mind when you hear the name of Ben Affleck? I’ll tell you what comes to my mind: a series of really bad career choices. For every Dogma on his résumé, he has a Gigli. For every Good Will Hunting, he has a Surviving Christmas. Indeed, for a while it seemed like he was destined to sit on the sidelines and do the Hollyweird equivalent of eating table scraps while his friend and fellow actor Matt Damon ended up with all the accolades and success. But then something surprising happened. He gave an impressive performance in a really good movie, Hollywoodland. Okay, I’ll admit, he didn’t remind me of George Reeves at all, but that didn’t really matter to me. His performance was honest, charismatic and heartfelt. It was the best acting performance I had seen from him. For the first time in quite a while, it felt to me like Ben Affleck wasn’t in Hollyweird by accident.
So what was my first reaction when I heard that Ben Affleck had co-written a movie starring his younger brother, and that he was going to make his feature film directorial debut with it? I’m not ashamed to admit that I snickered. However, after seeing the movie, I’m here to tell you that I was wrong. I really underestimated Affleck’s abilities as a filmmaker. Not only is Gone Baby Gone one of the best movies I have seen this year, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Ben Affleck receives a Best Director nomination.
Based on the book of the same name by Dennis Lehane (who also wrote Mystic River), the movie centers around a four-year-old girl named Amanda McCready, who was abducted and has been missing for three days. Amanda is from a poor neighborhood, so her case doesn’t receive the same attention it would if she were from a more affluent area. To get around that little problem, Amanda’s aunt Beatrice (played by Amy Madigan) informs every media outlet she can think of, and soon the whole situation has turned into a media circus. Practically every cop in the area is assigned to the case, but Beatrice still isn’t satisfied. She goes to Patrick Kenzie (played by Casey Affleck), a private investigator who specializes in finding missing people. Beatrice and her husband Lionel (played by Titus Welliver) want to hire Patrick and his girlfriend Angie (played by Michelle Monaghan) to help find their daughter. They see Patrick and Angie as street-smart people who can get information about Amanda’s disappearance that the cops can’t.
At this point, things start to become really complicated. Amanda’s mother, Helene (played by Amy Ryan), is a real piece of work. Not only is she heavily involved in drugs, but she has also been a terrible mother to Amanda. To make matters worse, she’s not really cooperating with the cops, giving them more attitude than helpful information. She seems more receptive to Patrick and Angie, much to the dismay of police chief Jack Doyle (played by Morgan Freeman), who reluctantly allows them to work with the two lead detectives on the case, Remy Bressant (played by Ed Harris) and Nick Poole (played by John Ashton). The cops already have several potential suspects identified, but Patrick finds out that Helene has been less than truthful in her version of events. The cops start to wonder if Amanda was abducted as an act of retaliation from one of Helene’s drug connections. Will Patrick and the police be able to work together to solve the case? Will Amanda be found alive, even though the odds are heavily against it? Will all kinds of twists and turns happen along the way?
What I like most about the movie, first and foremost, is Ben Affleck’s direction. He is smart enough to see that the story is about Boston — the city, the neighborhoods and the people — as much as it’s about the missing girl, Amanda. Indeed, the community seems to heavily integrate itself into the story, affecting how the characters think, what they do and what they don’t do. The cast is full of top-notch talent; Casey Affleck does an admirable job of playing what is undoubtedly a very challenging role. And what can I say about Morgan Freeman and Ed Harris’ acting abilities that hasn’t already been said? What I also like about the movie are the intellectual aspects of the story. In most movies, the right choices are obvious, but not in this movie. Nothing is cut-and-dry here; “right” and “wrong” are very subjective terms in the context of this story. Is doing what’s “right” really the best choice in a particular situation? I’m a big fan of movies that force you to stop and think.
What didn’t I like so much? Well, I have a few nitpicks that prevented me from giving this movie a perfect five-star rating. First, the character of Patrick has several run-ins with people that result in violence while he’s out gathering information about Amanda. I suppose there’s some of that involved with being street-smart, but it seems to me that if I wanted to be a “man on the street,” I would have an easier time getting information if I settled my disputes as peacefully as I could, rather than waving a gun around and spewing profanity. Second, I felt like some of the story arcs went way over the top, beyond the point of seeming believable. However, neither of those nitpicks was enough to seriously detract from my ability to enjoy and appreciate the movie.
Overall, I really enjoyed this movie, and I highly recommend it. It’s not lighthearted fare, by any means, but it didn’t drag me down emotionally the way Mystic River did. Even though the subject matter is dark and heavy, Ben Affleck does a good job of keeping the sordid details to a minimum and keeping the focus on the story and the characters. As I said earlier, I wouldn’t be surprised if he receives a Best Director nomination. If he keeps this up, he might actually have a future in that little town called Hollyweird.