Tough, Baby, Tough

I have never really been a big fan of Ben Affleck’s acting. I enjoyed him in Dogma but only because of Kevin Smith’s irreverent script, and as much as I love comic book films, Daredevil‘s read leather cat-suit, though appropriate, was simply a campy distraction. However, I certainly cannot say the same about Affleck’s directing. After a three week hiatus from the theater, my return was blessed by what will hopefully be the first of many successful turns in the director’s chair. Gone Baby Gone is as morally complex as it is brilliantly acted. Brother Casey gives a near perfect performance as a young, naive yet committed private investigator hired to find a missing little girl. Though the plot becomes a bit untenable, the moral/ethical questions that Affleck raises overshadow this and will stick with viewers well after the credits finish rolling. Below is a clip from the film…read on for the rest of the review.

Recalling last year’s Little Children, Gone Baby Gone opens with a newscast reporting the disappearance of a young girl, Amanda, from a Boston neighborhood. The little girl’s aunt and uncle, Beatrice (Amy Madigan) and Lionel (Titus Welliver) hire private investigator Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) to help the authorities in their search for Amanda. We quickly see that the aunt and uncle serve more of a parental role than Amanda’s mother, Helene (Amy Ryan), who is a cocaine addicted alcoholic that spends more time with her sleazy boyfriends at the local bar than she pays attention to her daughter. Patrick, through his connections with some of the more questionable figures in the community, quickly pieces together the puzzle and ties in Amanda’s kidnapping with a drug deal gone bad. At least this is what Patrick thinks happened. Oddly enough, director Affleck wraps up the case, only to open a new one involving the kidnapping of a young boy from another neighborhood not far away. Again, Patrick gets involved with the case in ways that will mark him for life. Moreover, the conclusion of this latter kidnapping provides new insight into the former and leads to its final resolution.

As Patrick and Detective Remy Bressant (Ed Harris) search for both missing children, Affleck sets up a contrast between Patrick’s moral absolutism and Remy’s moral relativism. In the clip above, Patrick tells Remy that murder is a sin, and Remy replies, “It depends on who you do it to.” Patrick mumbles something about his priest telling him that shame is God letting him know that he has done something wrong. This sends Remy over the edge, and, ironically, we see his moral relativism turn into something the priest’s moral certainty as Remy clearly demarcates good and evil and confidently knows which side he (and God) is on. Affleck has so tautly maintained this moral complexity throughout the film that when Patrick kills a convicted pedophile, even the most forgiving viewer might feel a sense of satisfaction.

Thankfully, Affleck never sides with one particular worldview, commending and critiquing both moral relativism and fundamentalism. We get the sense that Patrick is naive, not necessarily from his older counterparts’ assertions of this, but form his own, brief falterings that betray his confidence. He quickly overcomes these little crises of faith to stand confidently beside what he believes. Without spoiling the plot, Patrick is left to bear the brunt of his convictions in significant ways as Affleck leaves two key elements of the narrative unresolved and open for further discussion.

Though much of the narrative centers on personal and familial responsibility, Affleck also opens up the discussion of social responsibility as well. Along with parents, what responsibilities does society have in raising and ensuring the safety of our children. There can be no doubt that Helene is a failure as a mother. It seems that she could care less about her daughter’s disappearance, opening a six pack of beer and watching Jerry Springer as Patrick tries to ask her questions concerning Amanda’s disappearance. Moreover, she confesses to having taken Amanda with her on drug runs which enrages Beatrice. As Beatrice berates her, Helene tries to hide behind society’s failures, “It’s hard for a single mother…I ain’t got no daycare.” Of course, Helene uses this as a weak excuse to account for her miserable parenting skills; however, we cannot ignore the truth that lies behind the lie. It certainly can be hard for a single mother, hard enough to drive her to a life of running in which she, herself, becomes an addict. Yet Helene misses the point when she fails to see the role that Beatrice and Lionel play in helping her raise Amanda. Rather than nurturing this resource, she resents their assertions of moral purity and uprightness (as we later learn she should). Furthermore, we see a social failing in the release of convicted pedophile Corwin Earle. Why is someone with such a mental illness allowed to roam the streets freely and unchecked? Does the judicial system look too harshly on marijuana possession (for example) while taking a lighter approach to this greater evil? Corwin’s brief, yet significant, role in this film signals the failure of the American legal system and its inability to appropriately categorize “rehabilitatable” crimes.

Aside from Affleck’s more-than-capable directing, the film’s strongest suit is its actors performances. Every performance is spot on, and the only complaint I have heard involves Affleck’s decision to downplay Patrick’s partner, Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monoghan), even though her more somber personality is a nice foil to Patrick’s occasionally brass tactics. Ed Harris as an all-too-certain detective and Morgan Freeman as a self-righteous police chief are simply fantastic. Deadwood veteran Titus Welliver makes a welcome return to the big screen with a significant role, though I wonder if he will ever play a role in which he is not required to don gaudy facial hair.

As Oscar season starts to heat up, do not forget Gone Baby Gone, a film that might be more morally complex than most films scheduled to release this fall.

Gone Baby Gone (114 mins) is in theaters everywhere and is rated R for language, violence, and disturbing images.