Disturbing. That’s the word that popped into my head when I woke up in the middle of the night still thinking about this flick.
There’s been a lot of publicity about it, because it’s directed by Ben Affleck, his first attempt, and because it’s based on a novel by Dennis Lehane, who also wrote the novel MYSTIC RIVER was based on, which Clint Eastwood directed and Sean Penn starred in to great acclaim.
I had trouble with MYSTIC RIVER, as I did with THE DEPARTED, both movies set in the same milieu as GONE BABY GONE—lower-class, Irish-American (for the most part) Boston area cops and bad guys.
It’s a atmosphere I think I know some things about, so I get all proprietary, the way some of us can when we go to movies that purport to show aspects of scenes and times and characters we know first hand, or think we do.
And in MYSTIC RIVER and THE DEPARTED, though there were characterizations and lines and scenes that came across to me as totally authentic, there were also some major missteps in portraying other characters and ways of talking and being in their world, and those disparities ruined those flicks for me (ala Nicholson’s over-the-top portrayal of an Irish mob boss, based on Whitey Bolger, saying and doing things that Bolger, or anyone like him and in his position, would never do, etc.).
But this time it was different. Are there some disparities in GONE BABY GONE, some things that don’t add up in terms of the realities, as I see them, of those streets and people? Yep. A few. But they were minor, (as opposed to those in the other two films) and didn’t take away from the overall impact of the movie.
Are there gratuitous scenes in GONE BABY GONE (as there definitely were in the other two flicks for my taste, i.e. Nicholson’s insulting the nun in the diner, as well as many of the violent scenes in THE DEPARTED, etc. or the glamour shot of Sean Penn’s character screaming at the crime scene or stumbling down the street drunk—unconvincingly to me—in MYSTIC RIVER)? Yep. At least one, and maybe more.
Is GONE BABY GONE over baked at times. Yes to that too. BUT, and it’s a huge but, I bought the characters and their world as totally real, and every action they and others took, for at least the first two thirds of the movie or more.
It was during a scene with Casey Affleck and Ed Harris and Morgan Freeman, and others, in the police station, followed by a fly-over glamour shot of a water-filled quarry, that my critical been-there-done-that mind started raising questions. Before that point I was so totally sucked in by the reality the film was portraying that I mostly forgot I was watching a movie.
Part of the power of that reality was, first of all, due to Casey Affleck, Ben’s little brother, who is brilliant as the lead. I had my doubts about the guy carrying this kind of dark, grimy, crime flick, but no more. I loved him in the OCEAN’S ELEVEN films, his dead pan humor and appropriately diminished sidekick obliviousness.
But in GONE BABY GONE, he so completely embodies the lead character, the movie is his in a way Nicholson wished THE DEPARTED WAS (but wasn’t, it was Mark Wahlberg’s and Leo DiCaprio’s) and MYSTIC RIVER was meant to be Sean Penn’s (but was Tim Robbins’ and Keven Bacon’s).
In fact, this morning, I kept thinking if only Casey Affleck had been around when I was making a living for a few years as a screenwriter in Hollywood and a lot of people, especially me, were trying different ways to get a movie made based on a period of my own life that was pretty dramatic and historically important.
Like the arrogant fool I could sometimes be then, I turned down the young and still relatively unknowns of the time, Sean Penn and Kiefer Sutherland, because I didn’t think they had the right look or the right presence for the flick. But Casey Affleck would have been perfect.
And then there’s Amy Ryan as a drug addicted irresponsible single mother. Holy shit. I haven’t seen a portrayal this realistic since…I can’t even think of one to compare it to. Brando in ON THE WATERFRONT? Jennifer Jason Leigh in LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN or MIAMI BLUES?
If she’s not nominated for a best supporting actress award for this, then those awards mean even less than I think they do.
The few weaknesses of the film for me, can actually be explained (and partly were by the friend I saw it with) by the plot, though surprisingly they include what seems like a tepid performance by Morgan Freeman, one of the acting gods as far as I’m concerned.
If you haven’t seen it yet, which is likely since it only opened last night, be prepared for at least one overwhelmingly disturbing scene that I can see being justified by the story line, but nonetheless I wish wasn’t necessary or that another way had been found.
And be prepared to be confused at several points by the unfolding of the plot (and for some in the audience I heard commenting afterward, by the mostly authentic working-class Boston accents).
But also be prepared for a directing debut that as far as I’m concerned outdoes (for the most part) the directing turns of Eastwood and Scorcese on the same turf and in the same genre with some very similar characters and even plot points.
And lastly, be prepared to come away from this flick a fan of not only Ben Affleck’s directing, but of Casey Affleck’s star turn and Amy Ryan’s brilliant portrayal of the character which the movie, and the story it tells, would not work without.