I sat down to see Ben Affleck’s directorial debut Gone Baby Gone in the smallest auditorium in the theater it was playing at. It was one of those lame two aisle, non-stadium, auditoriums I usually try to avoid by going to see things on opening day. As I watched the still advertising and trivia slideshow in front of me I noticed an unusual red letter “X” in the corner of the screen. There were only two other people in the auditorium when the lights went down and the trailers began, and the film was started ten minutes late. Then as the trailers ended and the Miramax log went up the screen suddenly went black. When the picture returned there was no sound to speak of. I wasn’t sure whether this was a deliberate part of the film or not, once people began talking it became clear that the projectionist was in error. I stepped out of the auditorium and told an usher about the problem. By the time this was fixed ten minutes had passed without sound; as such I missed a lot of important exposition and desperately needed to catch up. This was not helped when I was distracted by the Toshiba screensaver that went over the screen for a few minutes, or the line that went up and down the screen for at least two reels. I was also distracted by planning out how I was going to confront the theater manager when the movie was over.
I did end up getting a free movie ticket out of it, but my experience watching Gone Baby Gone was certainly compromised. I tell you all this in the interest of full discloser. I obviously didn’t see it under optimal conditions and this may also compromise my review. Still, I will try to describe my impressions of the film, which is flawed, but not without its merits.
The film is about Patrick Kenzie, (Casey Affleck), who works as a private investigator in a blue color Boston neighborhood with his Girlfriend Angie (Michelle Monaghan). He and Angie are hired by Lionel McCready (Titus Welliver) and Beatrice McCready (Amy Madigan) to help find their missing niece, Amanda (Madeline O’Brien) who was abducted from her white trash (for lack of a better term) mother Helene McCready (Amy Ryan). Police chief Chief Doyle (Morgan Freeman), is skeptical about the odds of this investigation ending well and the lead detectives Nick (John Ashton) Remy (Ed Harris). This investigation leads the private investigators into a seedy underworld, it is clear that this was no average kidnapping.
Gone Baby Gone is based on a novel by Denis Lehane, who also wrote the book that was adapted into Clint Eastwood’s masterpiece Mystic River, one of my favorite films of this decade. This is quite apparent; the two movies have a number of things in common. Both are set in blue collar areas of Boston, both involve a parent mourning over a child who is the victim of crime, and both are trying to work as both a mystery and a tragedy. This comparison does not help Gone Baby Gone, Clint Eastwood’s film is quite impossible to live up too. Watching the two movies is like a study in how different a similar story can be when made by a great filmmaker and a novice.
That’s not to say that Affleck is a poor director, because he isn’t. In fact he does particularly well considering he’s been the butt of so many jokes recently. He just isn’t up to the level of Clint Eastwood, and as such Gone Baby Gone is no Mystic River. There is a lot here to suggest Affleck has a promising future. The dialogue, which Affleck co-wrote, is very good. Affleck clearly has an ear for the speech patterns of Boston, and he directs the dialogue scenes very well. Affleck also shows a flair for directing violence, and this film has quite a bit of it. Affleck also succeeds at filming the setting very well, the Boston underbelly feels very real here and Affleck deserves credit for it.
The acting in the film is hit or miss. Casey Affleck has the most to prove here, he needs to overcome the sinking suspicion that his casting was the result of blatant nepotism. In the end he succeeds, but only to a moderate degree. He looks too young for the role and generally just doesn’t seem like the kind of tough guy the role really needed. There is the occasional line suggesting that the characters around him think this way as well, but this doesn’t really sway my opinion, these line feel like they were thrown in only to make the casting work when they should have just cast someone who fit the character. Still, Casey does show a certain level of skill and generally works well in dialogue scenes, he just looks awkward as hell whenever he’s holding a gun.
More awkward however is Michelle Monaghan and his girlfriend and fellow private investigator. This is not entirely Monaghan’s fault, as this is a terrible and thankless role, but she doesn’t really help at all. This character seems to have no reason to exist other than to act as the voice of Patrick Kenzie’s conscience in a few scenes. She adds nothing to Kenzie’s investigation, and their relationship is rarely examined at all. All she does is occasionally tag along with Kenzie and maybe say one or two lines to give herself a reason to be there.
On the brighter side, there are a number of good performances by the supporting cast. Morgan freeman is up to his usual high standards in his role, and brings a lot to an important speech late in the film. Helene McCready has been getting wide praise as the grieving mother of the kidnapped girl, she doesn’t really get enough screen time, but she is quite good in the role. But the real standout here is Ed Harris, who disappears into his role as Detective Remy Bressant. I didn’t even recognize Harris until two thirds of the way into the film when I began to wonder who was giving this great performance.
The film is also marred by a large number of false endings each featuring a twist of a twist of a twist. In fact the whole second hour feels like a series of false endings. One of these twists, in retrospect, seemed like a complete tangent. The final twist never really held water for me, it basically involved people going to extreme lengths for what ultimately didn’t seem like a worthy motive.
Gone Baby Gone is no Mystic River, but it is a fairly enjoyable film. I was never bored watching it and there are a number of very good scenes. This is not the great film some people are saying it is but it definitely has its moments. It is worth seeing, but may be worth waiting until its available on DVD.
*** out of Four