RIORI Vol 3, Installment 75: David Cronenberg’s “A History Of Violence” (2005)

The Players…

Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ed Harris, Peter McNeill and (eventually) William Hurt, with Ashton Holmes, Greg Bryk, Heidi Hayes and Stephen McHattie.

The Story…

Dateline: Middle America. A lot can happen in the middle of nowhere.

Tom is a humble businessman and decent family guy. Runs the local diner in his simple, small town. He’s got a sweet wife and a pair of weisenheimer kids to keep him on his toes. A well-respected member of the community. And isn’t that usually how it all starts?

After thwarting a robbery at his diner—with uncharacteristic, ninja-like precision—Tom becomes a media sensation. How does a lowly hash-slinger bring down a pair of nasty crooks on the run with their own weapons and a well-placed carafe of the daily brew? It’s a good question.

Pointed even, since when Tom’s rescue gets filters through the national networks curious folks from out of town seek him out. Serious folks. One might regard them as…not nice.

Namely, such gentle thugs didn’t drive cross-country for Tom’s revered cuppa joe and a slice of pie.

They’d rather have a slice of him.

 The Rant…

This has happened here at RIORI before, when I’m not sure how to kick things off. But after watching barely the first act of A History Of Violence, something stirred my curiosity.

*pats comfy, leather couch*

Let’s sit, talk. Brandy might be served later if you’re nice.

I touched upon this matter years back in my typical byzantine way when I covered the film adaptation of Bryan O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim vs The World graphic novel series. Despite the movie being helmed by the darling director Edgar Wright I hated the thing. Found it stupid. Any postmodern pop-culture disections were lost on me. Now I ain’t dumb, but maybe Wright’s intentions were made to make me feel that way. Heck, this is more or less a left-handed apology to a respected friend who loved the thing. Sorry there, Fish. Ships in the night and all.

Pilgrim was based on a graphic novel series. Not comic book, BTW. For some odd reason both media are cut from a different cloth sewn to the same cape. I have watched an ample amount of comic book adaptations here, almost required by law to feature a superhero’s antics (e.g.: Spider-Man 3, Green Lantern, Superman Returns, Man Of Steel, Iron Man 2, etc). Also have seen quite a few graphic novel takes to boot (e.g.: Watchmen, From Hell, Cowboys And Aliens, the aforementioned Scott Pilgrim, the forthcoming V For Vendetta [mark your calendars!]) including today’s steak on the grill. Now it may be the medium, but despite which aisle of Wegman’s you’re snooping, films based on comic books tend to be action-packed and lighthearted in the endgame. Movies lifted from graphic novels tend to be more, well, graphic. Heavy drama, sex and shooting, navel gazing the human condition. Stuff like that. Despite one medium ain’t far removed from the other side of the coin—the content may be similar, if only ratcheted up to 11 on the novel end—when it comes to making the pluck into film what’s with the odd balance of power? Why are comic book flicks up and graphic novel flicks down? Why, I ask you, why?

I know. Such a question ain’t really that important so long as the film adapt stayed faithful to the spirit of the book if disregarding the letter. About half of the comic/graphic movies seen here at RIORI earned a “rent it” (an aside: this being the 21st Century, and Blockbuster has been shaken to dust, I’m kinda finding it silly to call our little cinematic whistle-stop RENT IT Or Relent It. But STREAM IT Or Relent It doesn’t really have the same cachet, does it?). That being said, it’s most likely the subject matter that cuts the mustard and not the source material’s format. One would think.

*tumblin’ tumbleweeds*

Okay, confession time. The above jazz has precious little to do with this week’s flick. Very little. We’re talking trace elements here. So why’d I bring it up? Let’s call it snacking on some crow, and we’ll reserve the bones for stock later.

If you may recall a century ago I covered the aforementioned Edgar Wright’s take on Scott Pilgrim vs The World. I did not like it, and wasted no blood shaking it down for its lunch money. Not long after the posting a long distance friend of mine complained about my complaints. He though the movie was great and a very faithful adaption to the spirit of the comic, if not the letter. Well, I often respect the guy and heard him out. His argument was valid, and gave me enough pause to consider Pilgrim again. Not reconsider it, mind you but hear my friend’s measured words.

In hindsight, Pilgrim was a good movie, and its interpretation of the graphic novels did it honor. Am I saying I like it now? Nope. Just really wasn’t for me. Sometimes that happens: a decent film gets in my crosshairs and I have a hard time hitting the broad side of a barn. At high noon. With a sniper rifle. That and with the Pilgrim movie, director Edgar Wright and his style kinda chafes me. Kinda. The man’s talented, obviously, but akin to my Tarantino autopsy with the Seven Psychopaths installment Wright like Tarantino might be too clever for his own good. Namely, the two directors are wunderkinds and particularly adept at going for the jugular, tempered by what their shrewd, pop culture-saturated muse whisper—scream, rather—in their heads, tempered with honey. Buckwheat honey. The bittersweet stuff.

Some directors are calculating, if only under the skin. Folks like Tarantino, Wright, Scorsese, Kurosawa, Nolan, Kubrick and Hitchcock got the gears a-turning when it comes to getting their sh*t in the can. Their work can get a bit esoteric, but there’s always a well-drawn blueprint to their work. I ain’t talking style, not exactly. I’m talking execution. In short, c’mon, 2001: A Space Odyessy was not some lark. Wonderous to be sure, but not off the cuff (Christ me even writing that makes me smell the fecal matter rising). You get the drift.

Then there’s the flipside: directors whose work is a bit looser, more organic. Following the senses. Those guys behind the lens are myriad, and their muses alternate on being on an opiate or a few shots of Jager, chased with a pan of brownies (and not the magic kind, either). Their films follow some sort of emotional straight line, and despite how pro their films come across there is the barest scintilla of either winging it, dropping everything to go where their senses tell them to go, and even despite the toughness of their plots there’s sometime a ragged glory humor just below the surface.

No shock here, but I be talking about the likes of Crowe, Zemekis, Burton, Miyazaki, Capra…

…And David Cronenberg.

A-ha! Point en route! Thanks for your patience, and I’m talking to me.

Now there’s a director who follows his senses. Organic like peat moss. His muse reeks of absinthe and pancakes, and what she tells him to is akin to like making gumbo: yeah, throw that in. No one saw it hit the floor. Cronenberg’s final products are twisted, scary, gross and so wonderfully violent your very soul needs a shower after watching one of his works. That’s a complement, BTW.

What I always dug about the man’s films was their acorn. You know, which may grow into the mighty oak? Yeah, only his glen is populated by some stunted growth. Short bus bonsai. His stuff is like xenogenesis; the offspring doesn’t resemble the parent. And the whacked out thing is if you chew on it, what his muse informs him (regardless and in spite of the weird sex, nasty violence and an overall “what the hell?” feeling) is, yes, personal but also prosaic.

Cronenberg has gone on record saying most of his catalog that is his fistful of acorns stemmed from pretty average, simplistic stuff. His adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dead Zone was less about sci-fi and precognition but growing old. The televised pulsing, mutant labia in Videodrome was inspired by the “off-air” TV programming he saw as a kid, like pirate radio broadcasting from out in the aether (that and as an aside he might’ve been a big Blondie fan). His puke-tastic version of The Fly was a meditation on the AIDS crisis in the mid-80s. Scanners was of shades regarding both drug abuse and the plight of Holocaust survivors. Relatively straightforward things. But get them into Cronenberg’s Cuisinart imagination, boink! And barf sometimes.

The guy excels at organic as well as weird. It’s understood he sharply executes his babies with a laser scalpel, but as for subtlety…well, there ain’t much there. Unless you scrape underneath the surface, not unlike a scratch off ticket promising big bucks on the outside but a lone dollar beneath. That’s also a complement. Keep track.

Now then.

*shakes sheets free of cracker crumbs*

This week’s shingle. We got all the poised hallmarks of a Cronenberg film. Intrigue? Check. Odd? Double check. Brick-to-the-head violence? Duh. Re-imagining themes so to properly appease/warp his muse? The Dead Zone, The Fly and the cryptic Cosmopolis (what else would you expect from a DeLillo book as movie?) are all re-interpretations. The guy is season in twisting things around to appease his demented muse covered in peat, thumbtacks and a hairshirt. The man has a gift for the emotional, but disregarding his inspirations, his movies are indeed organic. One might claim inorganic. I’m leaning that way.

So where the f*ck am I going with all this? Nowhere really, and that’s no shock. Kinda but not like Cronenberg’s output. This isn’t fanboy-ism. More of a cautionary tale. Not a warning though, either. It’s this: re-interpretations in film can be a dodgy thing. As I mentioned in the High Fidelity installment, another adaptation of book-into-film, we don’t want the director’s vision get in the way of the director’s vision. From a director who ultimately has made a career of re-interpretation films, you’re gonna get the Forrest Gump treatment regarding a box of chocolates served via rock tumbler.

You never know what your gonna get. Barring a coffee pot to the temple, Jenny…

Tom Stall (Mortensen) is the picture of quaint domesticity.

He and his wife Edie (Bello) are Town Square fixtures, proprietors of the Millbrook Diner, providing coffee and pie at friendly prices. They have a pair of great kids, reserved son Jack (Holmes) who takes after his dad. And squeaky Sarah (Hayes) who, of course, takes after mom.

Sure, there are hiccups. Jack get bullied by the resident alpha male jock Billy (Byrk) who has no toleraace for being bested on the baseball diamond. Sarah has nightmares. Apart from that, it’s life as usual in the Stall homestead in Millbrook, Indiana.

Until a pair of drifters wander into the Diner for more than just pie and a cup of joe.

Turns out these two are vicious criminals, and mince little words with Tom how they’re going to dismantle his business and friends. Faster than one could say “this will not stand” Tom dispatches these creeps with the efficiency of an assassin. He sends one to the hospital and the other to the grave. Tom saves the day, his business and his friends. For his heroics, modest Tom becomes a media sensation. The man who wouldn’t take it, fought back and triumphed.

That leaves a question hanging, though. How did Tom do all that superspy stuff? He serves pie for a living. He’s not James Bond. Even Tom can’t explain his actions away. But soon after an individual visits Millbrook to provide some some answers, whether Tom wants any or not.

Yet another day at the Diner, Tom plays host to a stranger. A haggard, eerie tough who calls himself Fogarty (Harris), and appears to know a lot about Tom and his history. More than Tom may know about himself. Or wants to.

Or should…

Scott Pilgrim vs The World this ain’t.

No surprise there, and nary a drumkit to found. However kinda tying into my weird, dodgy schpiel about graphic novels versus yadda yadda yadda is how a graphic novel feels. Sure, it’s self contained; you don’t have to wait for the fresh ish next week and “what happens next?” There’s no comic code to adhere to, so we get blood, sweat, tears and guts to relish. Sometimes we get unconventional artwork to pore over (think The Dark Knight Returns or, well, Scott Pilgrim). But the main thing I think about how graphic novels are unique in the realm of comics is how claustrophobic they can feel. It might be that self-contained thing, as well as the creators can let their id run riot, decidedly apart from mainstream books. I’m not sure, but I know that from reading Eisner’s, Miller’s and Moore’s work I don’t want to feel like someone’s looking over my shoulder reading their sh*t. Curious about Spidey’s exploits this week? Check it out. Rorschach on the prowl in the City, sniffing out conspiracy? Go away. Under the sheets with a flashlight here.

That’s the flavor of isolation I got from watching History. Granted, I never read the source material, but the film was tight, angular. Difficult to watch, and I’m not referring to the content. It was how it was packaged. There was a lot of intrigue, namely “wait a minute, what’s going on here?” There was definitely something afoot (and very odd) about how Tom thwarted the baddies; it was so sudden and left-of-center. Out of nowhere. Isolated. The hell?

Next scene.

I meant that metaphorically. Slow down. This is a Cronenberg flick; there’s always more than meets our eyes. History way be another adaptation/reinterpretation, but we’re gonna get spin. According to the director, he delved into Darwinian theories of evolution. Cronenberg surmised from this that there’s always gonna be a stronger bastard bent on wrenching power from lesser, more unfortunate f*ckers. Hmm. Sticks well to how simple Tom gradually realizes his inner power. Not sure History book writers had that in mind when pen met page, but when Cronenberg stuck his beady eye into the lens, all bets were never there.

Regardless being a maverick at spin, I did smell some more traditional filmmaking under the surface. Perhaps homage from Cronenberg, the protean. The film did have a connecting style. History kinda had an “Old West” feel. Specifically the “Man With No Name” spaghetti Eastwood oaters. Maybe too on the nose, but that’s Tom’s motivation in the proverbial nutshell, down to living in some podunk “frontier” town visited by unsavory strangers. You gotta have some anchor with a Cronenberg flick, Darwinian process or no.

That setup serves the film well. Again, an anchor. Quite useful considering how strategically sh*t goes off the rails later. But keep in mind the Old West schtick. Cronenberg has always defended his stock-in-trade demented works are based on personal, if not prosaic things. For example, his grotesque take on The Fly. It’s easy to dismiss/blame one’s impulses on some outside stimulus. The man’s fooled no one and everyone. He thrives on exaggeration and that may be his best, “modest” trademark in his work.

Huh? Watchu mean modest? There is precious little modesty in Cronenberg’s outings. When one employs rotten hot dogs and a well-placed shotgun blast to replicate a head exploding due to too much psychic intrusion the notion of being modest of craft kinda goes out the window. Yeah, I guess so, but maybe it’s all about which window.

Alright, enough anal spelunking. Cronenberg’s works are modest, reserved even. And History is no different. Going all the way back to Scanners, something’s always lurking, creeping under the floors and around the corners. The Stall’s life of quaint, small town domesticity is a ruse, to be sure, but before the diner “home invasion” scene yet after the stage setting opening sequence we get a weird, static and isolated feeling. Right, we’re establishing the stakes as setups are wont to do, but innocence is but a visage here. For all. The Stalls are classic mom and pop, yet it feels forced, like any small crack will make the dam fail. We have this creeping dread of artificiality permeating…f*cking everything. It’s claustrophobic, as a graphic novel is to be read. It’s winking melodrama. It’s a Cronenberg film; there are certain expectations. History‘s suspense doesn’t come from the impending doom, not really. It comes from that frail cardboard feeling which makes us know that all’s not well. Even before Harris shows up (and well before Hurt finally shows up) something is decidely “not right” with Tom, or Edie for that matter. The tension is like caramel, oozing and sweet. More like bittersweet really.

And the best aspect of such is our Danish Aragorn Viggo (I’m gonna address him as Viggo from here on. One, cuz I like his first name and; two, I keep misspelling his last). Like the lurking, static visage of the Stall’s small town idyll, we know even before a shot is fired or a carafe smashed that Tom is—as the British say—something else altogether. His homelife feels ill-fitting. His marriage seems too nice. His kids need to be there. And Viggo with his mile-long stare and aw-shucks self-effacing makes it all the more odd. Reserved. Modest. And of course it makes his Jason Bourne freakouts all the more harrowing.

The flipside of Viggo’s earnest performance and skilled killer in hiding—both within and without—is a distinct issue I took with History: I felt I’d seen this before. Sure, plenny’o films borrow/make a nod to previous films covering similar subject matter. It’s when the pinion upon which the whole plot spins like a warped 45 screams to my attention span that this is not a new thing. Despite all his solid fragility and earnest deception, Viggo devolves into a white picket fence Jason Bourne. Don’t get me wrong, Viggo’s Tom was engaging, but not wholly original. I mean carbon copy unoriginal. Then again, Cronenberg adaptation/reinterpreation of a graphic novel delivered with the unassuming whacked-out modesty. Christ, it can confusing talking about Cronenberg’s output. See-it-to-believe-it thing going on.

Back up. For the underinformed, the Bourne books/movies revolve around the exploits of a superspy with amnesia named Jason Bourne. Guy has no idea who his is or from whence he came, but he sure done good at hurtin’ peoples and guns are shiny. Viggo’s a lot like Bourne. A lot like Bourne. It takes longer here for our reluctant “hero” to come to terms with his history. Right, History is based on a graphic novel, and Cronenberg shoots it as such, but unless the movie script deviated way left from the written plot does everybody know something about Tom except Tom himself? I’m not saying this flaw is naked, but the whole “I’ve seen this before” feeling was both insidious and rather unfair. You’d think under Cronenberg’s lens, his keystrokes of reinterpretation, perversion and modesty (and we’re gonna ignore the source material here on out. You didn’t read it either, admit it) he would not play it so safe and in a sense squander our lead’s acting chops to be just some Bourne cypher. Viggo was still interesting though, sold his Tom well. I suppose that was enough for me not to chuck my embossed hardcover copy of Ludlum’s The Bourne Supremacy at the screen. You know, the one no one read? Including Ludlum?

Viggo’s foil, Harris’ Fogarty is also another thing entirely. Consider this: what we have here is essentially a comic book movie, and stars not one but two Oscar winners. It’s been well documented here I’ve taken the George C Scott stance about how the self-aggrandizing, back-patting nonsense detracts from just watching and simply enjoying the whole movie experience.


However, when a pair of prominent, award-winning actors grace a sort of nondescript comic film you gotta pay some attention. Especially when one of said actors is the well-esteemed Ed Harris. Big fan here. He’s another actor who’s always elevate a mediocre movie from a possible sewer line. Namely, not unlike my main man Sean Connery, some of Harris’ movies may suck, but he’s always good. And hell, both he and Sean made an actual good movie out of Michael Bay’s doofy The Rock. No duh thank him and aging 007.

Anyway to the meat, laid-back Harris feels more intense than Harris-Harris. His Fogarty was f*cking chilling, and the hell of that his character was so plain, so quietly assured. Sure, Fogarty looked like he took a flaming Cuisinart to the face, but it was his demeanor, like a librarian behind that face that was so unnerving. Enough to make Tom quietly doubt and shiver over this “Pete” guy he was accused of being. Harris is the merry imp, well acquainted with rules of the game and therefore adept at breaking them when necessary. He was supposed to be the heavy here, but was instead lightweight. I guess let sleeping dogs whatever.

When the final act eventually rolled around (and despite that Crononberg does indeed enjoy his weird shit) I think I figured out the straightforward muse that tugged at the man’s director chair, and it wasn’t simply Darwinism. History is all about idful catharsis. It ain’t some subtle lesson here: we are all capable of violence, pre-programmed or defensive. We all like to pretend, either literally or metaphorically as Tom does that we’re all even keeled, and attempt to create an environment that fosters that idea. Nope. Like Tom, we’re all delusional: sh*t happens, trains jump the tracks, fire, ruin and supernova may take us all. First things first, though: bare the fangs. The ones we forgot we had.

After all the folderol you may ask, “So blogger, was the movie good? And you got anymore Mallomars?”

Answer: it was okay and no (those tasty cookie mutants went off the market around a lifetime ago. I’m sad, too). Okay because of the Bourne stink, as well as the morality play I just smeared all over above. All of it was executed real good, but it also was not that original, even for the director’s style. Seemed like Cronenberg was as ever delving into the well of personal truth via mimicking a graphic novel’s take on whatever. It felt like a solid Cronenberg flick, with all earmarks unpierced, with a great cast and solid pacing. But felt like a solid Cronenberg flick, with all earmarks unpierced, with a great cast and solid pacing and the shadow of Matt Damon waiting in the wings with a clapboard at the ready.

Needed more cool hand Harris. And more stairway f*cking.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Another mild rent it (what is it, three films in a row?). A good movie, as only Cronenberg can spawn. But there was this creeping feeling of “Haven’t I seen this before?” nipping at my brain. A good time waster, but I’d rather watch his adaptation of Naked Lunch again. And I read the book prior. Movie made no sense either. Good work, Dave.

Stray Observations…

  • “There’s no such thing as monsters.” Uh-huh, right.
  • Best/worst puke take I ever saw.
  • “We never got to be teenagers together.” And best/worst subtle romance line I’ve ever heard.
  • Tom is delusional. In at least three different ways.
  • “We’re tourists.” And we are.
  • Liked the Yeungling shout-out. Reminded me of home, minus the crashing dishes.
  • “Then we deal with it.” Click.
  • There’s lots of small symbolism here.
  • “Nice gate.” …Yep.
  • That look. That gun. That is all.

Next Installment…

We’re on the case with Starsky & Hutch, their cool ass muscle car and nary a whit of irony.


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



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.


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?