RIORI Vol 3, Installment 28: Ben Affleck’s “Gone Baby Gone” (2007)

 


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The Players…

Casey Affleck, Ed Harris, Michelle Monaghan and Morgan Freeman (here again), with John Ashton, Amy Ryan, Amy Madigan and Titus Welliver.


The Story…

When an innocent gets kidnapped, it’s always news. When it’s a poor, white girl? Good Lord, send out the tanks. But what if the child “needed” to be kidnapped? Had to be taken out of a dangerous situation?

PI Pat Kenzie might’ve taken the time to ask these questions. Instead he got pulled into this circumstance already. Against his will, against heavy odds of cracking the case, and soon against the wall.


The Rant…

After my last, extremely goofy installment, I’m gonna try to play it straight (okay, straighter) this time out. Besides, this week’s scrutiny is over a serious movie, so I’ll try to leave out a lot of the pretzel logic. That and I’ve never been much for Steely Dan anyway.

Ahem.

Never been much of an Affleck fan. At least not Ben.

If you’ve been alive since the 90s, Ben’s star had been gradually—and then meteorically—on the rise. With somewhat good reason. Despite being straightforward and kinda derivative, Ben and his buddy Matt Damon’s breakthrough script for Good Will Hunting opened the  floodgates to increasingly better gigs. Profitable if merely artistically. Keep in mind though, Ben got his Oscar for writing not acting (and I don’t see such rewards towards that in the foreseeable future. Maybe I’ll be proven wrong some century).

It’s easy to slag on Ben the actor. He’s had precious few roles that earned some respect beyond just his scribbling. Really. Victim by proxy to a stink palm only goes so far to engender an actor’s respectability. Nor does playing a blind superhero dancing on seesaws with his future wife. Or running in J.Lo’s circle period. Even when does a serviceable, even good job with the roles he’s been given (e.g.: Dazed And Confused, Chasing Amy, Hollywoodland, et al) Ben’s repeatedly drawn the short stick regarding career enhancement via thespian. Let’s hope his finger-crossing turn as Batman might not go tits up. Unsure on many fronts (hard to get Daredevil’s playground scene out of my head). But he’s dogged. Keeps on trying. Gotta respect that.

Still not a fan, though.

On the other side of the camera, however, Ben has shown promise. Even considering the mediocre script behind Hunting, his directing acumen has been increasing in leaps and bounds. I’ve been as surprised as you have. Both The Town and especially Argo (which won Best Pic, BTW) were pretty good films. Satisfying. Not necessarily excellent, but there’s a short list of prominent—let alone good—films directed by faces usually in front of the camera. Ordinary People by Redford. Dances With Wolves (for good or for ill) by Costner. Unforgiven  by Eastwood. Pretty short list there. Kinda surprising in some respects that Ben earned membership into that club. I’m not put off by that.

His acting, however? We’ll just let that go for now, okay?

His l’il bro, on the other hand, I’ve found quite interesting. Blame or thank Hunting for this. In a sense, that was Casey Affleck’s breakout role. All 15 minutes of it (not a cliche, I timed it. Don’t ask why). For all the fluff in Hunting—good fluff, to be fair—there was one scene where Casey held the camera. If you’ve seen the movie you know what I’m talking about. The bar scene, the one about the cop car. Right, that. One of the best shaggy dog stories I’ve ever heard in a movie, and Casey delivered it in a classic, “you talkin’ to me?” accent via Bahstun. Wicked pissa.

I’ve been in moments like that. You’ve been in moments like that. The wiseass, Spanky-esque wingman with the tales to tell and too many pints too fast. The term “relatable” regarding characters has been bandied about so much it has ceased to carry much weight, even though I’ve used it here at RIORI one too many hundred times. I’ve been slow to learn—and am still learning—that making a character relatable on screen in tough. You can have the everyman, as in every role Redford has ever done. You can have the beleaguered, humorous guy, as in every role Steve Martin has done. You can have the assh*le—in a good way—like Pacino’s entire CV (c’mon, Tony Montana was a doosh, but folks still love him). What I’m saying is being a relatable character in a movie requires moxie. Doubt that? Well, if you think about it Travis Bickle is a relatable character. Right you scum?

I’m not trying to overplay my hand here, but Casey’s camera grab didn’t feel like a fluke. It felt to me more like an introduction. It didn’t end there, nor really start there either. Casey had the Ocean’s 11 series, Out Of The Furnace, Interstellar. Character roles, malleable, chameleon-like, something his big brother isn’t as good at pulling off with much conviction (not to beat Ben up, but he did star in not one but two Michael Bay travesties. Wait, is that redundant?). Read: Casey might direct someday, too. As well pen a few scripts. So the guy’s been busy even (almost) living in the shadow of his award-winning, smarmy big bro. Casey’s been on the rise.

Not sure if he ever carried a movie, though. You know, as the lead.

I recently found out he had…


There’s been a kidnapping.

Madeline McCready. Four years old. A good girl, pretty, sweet. Scooped out of a run-down South Boston neighborhood amongst many run-down neighborhoods. The case has either baffled the police, or too much red tape is keeping the investigation mired. The hell of it is that there are precious few clues, no obvious motive, not even a real ransom demand. The kid’s just…gone.

Private investigator Patrick Kenzie (Affleck) is an expert in such matters. Missing persons in general, lost children in specific. He and his “partner” Angie (Monaghan) usually keep away from high profile cases like the McCready kidnapping. But he’s local, as little Maddy’s Aunt Bea (Madigan) learns, and she and her distraught brother Lionel (Welliver), frustrated with the cops dragging their feet seek Pat out. He reluctantly takes the case after meeting the “distraught,” coked-up mother Helene (Ryan), an odious creature if there ever was one. Pat wonders if Maddy is better off elsewhere than with the failure that is Helene.

Despite the police commissioner himself, Jack Doyle (Freeman) spearheading the search, Pat’s getting little cooperation from the cops in finding Maddy, save grizzled, experienced Lt Remy Brussant (Harris). Remy appears to have a personal agendum regarding the kidnapping. And the child’s immediate family is dodgy with even raising a finger to find Maddy, as if almost protecting her from Helene despite the awful crime.

Pat finds himself getting bounced and bombarded about Southie’s underbelly in trying to get a crack in the case. And no one is helping. It feels like finding Maddy is an afterthought against not finding her.

After all the headaches, it looks like to Kenize that the kid is nothing but…gone…


One could make the argument that Gone Baby Gone is Ben Affleck’s bid for critical respect on his own feet, minus Damon. This is also his debut as a director, as well as employing overt nepotism. I only mention this because, well, if you’re a first time director it would be plenty handy to have your lead be someone you’d be quite familiar with. A family member would be a good choice. Okay, it didn’t work with Sofia in the third Godfather movie. Then again, almost nothing worked there. But there’s the case for the Carradines, the Howards and the Sutherlands. Hell, I think some of those folks have actually worked together. Mostly positive results there. I’m no expert mind you, but I’ve seen one on TV.

With Baby, director Ben was pretty shrewd in casting in his baby bro Casey as the fulcrum upon which the script balances. Casey’s performance as Pat pleasantly surprised me based on his drunken bit part in Hunting. I know, it was probably the first time you saw Casey in action also. But the swaggering boozehound morphed into a cagey PI—quite well, BTW—was an unexpected turn. The fact it worked wasn’t necessarily shocking, but oddly refreshing. I didn’t fancy Casey for the emotive type sans ham. Granted, Ben knew how to pull Casey’s strings, but it’s probably safe to assume the guy was willing. Both made it work.

This was a very character-driven film. Very. Good thing all of the cast was interesting. To explain, when the casting call went out, “local color” responded. The kidnapping case was nothing more than wallpaper for the cast to keep pasting up. I know. All dramas play that way, but I can’t immediately recall any recent drama where the almighty Maguffin is so shoved aside to let balls-to-the-wall characterization carry everything. So much so that—in Baby‘s case anyway—the plot element gets sidelined to baffle the audience as to what the f*ck is going on. I guess that’s what makes for a good mystery-drama. One gets the impression within all this story everybody wants something from someone for nothing. All of Baby is nothing bit one big personal agendum, and the audience is relentlessly pummeled by this. It’s all good.

There’s a significant flaw in executing a crime drama/mystery thriller: replay value. How can one make a film like Baby captivating over a second viewing even though you know how it ends? Sharp characterization. We got it here. Boom. Like I said. This being an uber-character driven film, I gotta tackle all facets (or try to) of our beloved family, the good and the warts. Hey, my prerogative and duty. I do this so you don’t have to, like wiping. But seriously, and beyond ragged Pat, we got a holy host of live ones to nail up.

First off, however, is a complaint. Right, right. Bitch, bitch. Gonna go here first and sweep the crumbs under the mat. I saw Baby with the wifey. We enjoyed it with a cringe, but throughout the film I had a nagging feeling. So much of one I had to bother her halfway through the movie. Hit pause, turned around and asked about Angie. I commented that Monaghan seemed too fragile to handle the gig she had. She felt out of place. The woman’s comment (and she nailed it)? She’s seemed an afterthought. She was. Baby is an man’s, man’s, man’s, man’s world. All our male leads tear it up, and lonely Monaghan gets lost in the shuffle. Even Ryan’s harridan Helene has more testosterone than Angie. Maybe her frailty was there as a steam valve for all the relentless tension, but being wispy throughout didn’t do much in that regard.

Other than Monaghan’s miscasting, the rest of the actors were excellent. I’ve already given a high five to Casey, but the rest of our crew was just as notable. Hats off to (Ed) Harris—a little Led Zep pun there. We need to lay off the serious now and again—he’s always solid. His Remy is a relishing role. He really chews it up, almost to the point of hamminess but delivered so convincingly you just end up rolling with it. Harris’ skill as an actor is “selling it.” No matter how engaging, how silly, how dependable he can be his characters always sell. Even his Bud in The Abyss (my favorite Cameron movie. Don’t judge me). Without a whit of irony. His Remy is no different. And what’s cool is his Remy is sketchy. His is a con artist ready to con (or in some cases here re-con) any poor soul like Pat into a sense of righteousness in whatever it takes to get the job done. Kinda chilling if you think about it. In short, you gotta respect Ed Harris.

Funny Harris being second fiddle really. Again, barring Monaghan, the second tier was also expertly cast. For instance, I don’t know if Ryan got a nod towards any movie noms, but if not she should have for her sleaze in Baby. Her Helene was odious. Talk about deadbeat dads? What about monstrous moms? The assh*ole, absentee dad is a well-worn trope. Now I ask you, tell me a tale in the world of celluloid of a notable c*nt of a mom after Mommy Dearest?

*counting fingers*

Ryan’s Helene was hellacious. Her character was a high school PSA for birth control. Oh God, if after seeing Baby with Ryan skulking about and you wouldn’t seek a condom, maybe a scalpel? Yer a f*ckin retard. Her turn was that good. Good in the sense of awful. It takes a pretty talented actress to make you want a shower after seeing her perform. See Angie? That’s how it’s done. Yuk.

*time for an intermission, and you are welcome*

If you saw my snarky parenthetical reference in The Players meme up top (and I’m sure you did) Morgan Freeman showed up. For the past I don’t know how many years, Freeman’s been the go to guy for…well, everything. I’m guessing that based on prior installments, as well as my vitriol against the banal and repetitive. I’m gonna slag Freeman’s overexposure for all it’s worth, right?

Not necessarily.

I’ve been pretty straightforward with this installment. I pride myself on being a loony. Occasionally I rein it in. But I feel I’d be remiss in sharing with the lot of y’all a personal twist on this trip out. Never to fear, it involves Red Ellis. It also involves Eazy Reader.

Presently, as I write/edit this installment—as I do with almost all my screeds here at RIORI—I have a soundtrack busting out of my iTunes library. Been listening to the Irish punk band Stiff Little Fingers. I don’t care if you’ve ever heard of them. No snobbery here. However regarding Freeman’s movie career, and in keeping with the time-out we’re in here, my digital library serves as an analog towards Freeman’s prolific/overexposed FaceTime. Again, Eazy Reader.

I know I’m rambling, but so does Freeman’s career. Ever see Brubaker? Hole in one. Consider this a trip to the snack bar. Let’s let it get away for a punch. Remember to lower the seats.

Ever since Freeman earned Academy respect with Million Dollar Baby, the guy has been in almost every single American film since 2004. Regardless of genre, demand or soundtrack, Freeman has dotted the Is and crossed the Ts in The Bucket List, Oblivion, The Lego Movie, Last Vegas, Wanted, Invictus, Born To Be Wild, RED, Dolphin Tale, Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, Olympus Has Fallen, Dolphin Tale TWO, Lucy, Ted 2, LONDON Has Fallen

You catching my drift? The guy’s a great actor, but can we say overexposed? What’s next? The Larry Bird Story starring Morgan Freeman? Maybe.

A few things. First, maybe the guy is just in demand for his versatility and loves to act. Second, the man’s getting up there in years and perhaps wants to pack as much thespian punch as he can before the clock runs down. Third, he’s been following the Nic Cage law of diminishing returns and just can’t turn down a script no matter how career threatening it may prove to be. I repeat: Dolphin Tale 2.

Whatever it is that drives the man, his Jack Doyle—though delivered with the usual Freeman gravitas, sincerity and sensibility—is a waste of his talent. Here Freeman is nothing more than a glorified cameo, seemingly only around to give the big reveal. I hated that. An actor of Freeman’s caliber (but may be quickly becoming a bore. Ha!) should do more than just give face time in an otherwise compelling mystery. What I’m getting at here is any actor could’ve played Doyle. Even Ed Harris. Morgan’s been stretching himself thin for a while now, and his blink-and-you’ll-miss-it role in Baby is a good example of that. Too bad. Freeman is a graceful actor. It’s probably why he’s so popular/in demand, although his fans might not realize that.

Back to normal.

Like a lot of crime dramas, atmosphere and overall feel are crucial to setting the pace of the movie. I’m not talking pace pace here (although we get nice and thick with Baby‘s even pace), I’m talking about dragging it out just enough to 1) create intrigue and; 2) enhance both tension and the need to make the audience scratch their collective skulls. What’s going on here? That’s what a decent police procedural should ask you.

Baby does this in spades. It was edgy in a very good way. That’s a term oft overused in most crime dramas. It’s not here. Even with some stilted dialogue—though not totally off-putting—grimy stereotypes galore and a lotta hypocrisy throughout, Baby is overall interesting in how the “real” investigation gets underway (even if that was not until the third act). Some might find a million cliches and jillion other movies being tagged here, it’s not about the notes, but how you play ’em as I like to scream to the rafters. Often. A lot.

Here’s an example: it felt like Taxi Driver was a major influence on this production, but done with taste. At least half the scenes were shot in the demimonde, buttering the tension all over the place. All poor lighting and angular camera work. We also enter into Rashomon territory; who’s version of the truth is the truth? Baby keeps you asking, almost frustratingly so. This could just be overspill from the source novel, but I wasn’t so sure. At any rate, it kept me a-scratchin’, and that’s what made Baby good. A mystery should keep you wondering. Like Hitchcock said, “Always make the audience suffer as much as possible.” Any perceived lameness of script (even though the final act was indeed hurried) can be overcome by skillfully squeezing the audience’s scrotum by way of acting, atmosphere or even a keening note from the soundtrack. Dusky characterization, rough cinematography and/or glaring lighting—which were great here, BTW—can still blur the corners. If a movie’s good, watch it and damn the torpedoes. Suffer.

That being said Baby was a tough movie to get through overall. That’s a complement. The hard sh*t you want—need—to remember. The plot, the content, the difficult (but memorable) characters. All that jive. I think Ben might be onto something with this whole directing bit. Working with his kid bro seems fruitful, too. Perhaps there’s enough juice getting brewed to perhaps excuse Jersey Girl. That and maybe Tower Heist. Could be possibilities abound.

“Yeah. One or two.”


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. It’s a solid caper, directed by an actor I cannot stand starring his little bro as a baby-faced, Southie, wizened detective hell-bent on finding lost children. I still liked it. Deal. Argo was pretty okay, also. I cheated on my taxes, too. And I still like Oasis, okay?


Stray Observations…

  • “It’s not that, Lionel.” “What is it then?” “She’s a c*nt!” Looks like Family Feud is written all over this one.
  • Harris’ hairpiece is terrible. You can’t take such a thing seriously. The actor’s been bald for the better part of his storied career and has done fine without wigs. He wouldn’t’ve gotten that award for Pollock if he sported a ‘fro, right?
  • If a newcomer to America came up to me and asked, “What is white trash?” I’d hand him a copy of this movie.
  • “You are an abomination.”
  • “And get that sausage off my lawn!” Gotta use that. At least once.
  • I thought Taggert retired by the third film?
  • “It was an accident…”
  • “Murder’s a sin.” “Depends on who you do it to.”
  • Best drinking scene I’ve ever seen on film. At least to my immediate whiskey-addled memory. I think there was something in Raiders…(passes out)
  • “That’s not an ‘if’ you wanna bring into your life.”
  • Casey’s eyes in the big reveal is cunning.
  • Confession scene one: Bea calls the media. What else would she do?
  • “…I love children.”

Next Installment…

James Franco? Kate Hudson? They’s Good People. But them Yanks just gotta be careful ’bout rooms to let, true guv?


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