Afflecks mesmerize with ‘Gone Baby Gone’

Home is where your heart breaks.

Boston is Ben Affleck’s home. He understands the town better than just about anyone. That’s the difference between Affleck’s Gone Baby Gone and Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River, two Boston-set films based on novels by Dennis Lehane. Eastwood didn’t grow up in Boston; he doesn’t know the streets, doesn’t understand the people and doesn’t know how truly great it was when the Red Sox won the World Series. Affleck does.

And above all, Affleck knows heartbreak.

It is this combination of his adoration for his bleak and merciless hometown setting with a devastating tale of heartbreak and despair that turns what could have easily been a color-by-numbers police procedural thriller into a captivatingly powerful, downright tragic and overall stunningly magnificent directorial debut for Ben Affleck.

Gone Baby Gone, based on the novel by the same name, is the heartrending tale of a private investigator, Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck, younger brother to director Ben Affleck) and his girlfriend Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan) who are hired to augment the investigation of a missing 4-year-old girl. From the little girl’s drug addicted mother to the lowest scum of the earth populating the wretched backstreets of Boston, Kenzie searches everywhere. It is his backstreet knowledge of the city that gives the investigation, led by Detective Remy Bressant (Ed Harris) and police Capt. Jack Doyle (Morgan Freeman) that provides a deeper and often darker insight into the search than they ever dreamed possible.

Like a Greek tragedy set amid a lost society, the film is a dark examination between right and wrong and the haze that can cloud the means to an end. While a sense of neo-noir is easily recognizable on surface, Affleck dives deeper into the moral struggles that can tear apart families, relationships and even entire towns. While it may often pretend to be a simple murder mystery, it doesn’t take long for the subtle morality plays to come into focus. From frame one, the film continuously accumulates in power, emotion and devastation, all leading to a final scene that will leave you with a sense of hopelessness and despair.

The film is simply impossible to shake. While there are several heartbreaking and often disturbing sequences in the film, it is ultimately the devastating conclusion that will drown you in sorrow and likely stick in your head and your heart for weeks after you’ve seen it. You’ll run the scenario in your head dozens of times and will likely wonder what you would have done in the situation. It is tragic cinematic morality at its best, a powerful and emotional sucker punch to the gut.

While the film works as a subtle but effective tragic morality tale, it is also just as effective as a hometown police thriller. It is a gritty, hard-hitting and intense investigation played with all three dimensions on screen. The neo-noir feel of the local neighborhood PI could have easily played as a well developed episode of CSI or a weepy Lifetime movie, but manages not to take the subject matter as if it were another weekly episode to get through. The action sequences are nail biting and real, giving off a sense of suspense with meaning and purpose. The drama is intelligent and never tries to insult the intelligence of the audience; you either keep up or go home and watch a rerun of Law and Order.

The script, co-written by Affleck and Aaron Stockard, takes Lehane’s page-bound dialogue and turns it into lewd, graphic but essentially authentic hometown prose. The fact that we’re in Boston is never shoved down our throats with cliche accents or shots of men scarfing down hotdogs at Fenway Park, but the genuine conversational dialogue never gives us the benefit of the doubt; we are truly in the streets of Boston and Affleck will be our guide, for this is his home.

Casey Affleck is simply a powerhouse force of an actor. Coming off an Oscar-deserving role as the coward Robert Ford in The Assassination of Jesse James, Casey Affleck has managed to rise from Ben’s less-famous younger brother to one of the best actors we have working in Hollywood. Casey Affleck simply peels back ethical layers one at a time, showing a simply mesmeric side of honesty and vulnerability that can hardly be faked. He makes this performance his own and he is truly a wonder to behold.

It seems like every time Ed Harris makes a film, I am in awe at why this wonderful actor has yet to win an Oscar. In the film, he magnificently disappears into the provocative role of the gray-shaded detective, as his mere presence demands your attention while he appears on screen. Morgan Freeman, in one of his most heartbreaking roles (which is saying a lot), plays the police captain who, after losing his own daughter to a kidnapper several years back, pours his heart and soul into the investigation. He commands the screen with tragic elegance, adding a greatly appreciated third dimension to what could have easily been a paper-thin role. Michelle Monaghan also takes the role of the supportive girlfriend and makes it her own. Her empowered performance is moving and effective.

Gone Baby Gone proves that while Ben Affleck may have spent countless hours in front of the camera, he took the time to learn a thing or two behind it as well. The film would have been an impressive directorial feat for anyone, much less a first-time director whose career as an actor was quickly diminishing. It is his love and authentic familiarity with the setting and his panache for heartbreak that proves that no one could have made the film like he did, for he truly understands what home is all about.

Home is where you bury your sins. But, more importantly, home is where you wash them clean.

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