Written by: Lance Carmichael, CC2K Staff Writer
If you had told me the following propositions two years ago:
1. Casey Affleck would turn out to be a much, much better actor than his more famous brother.
2. Ben Affleck would turn out to be a pretty decent director.
I wouldn’t have believed you. But you would have been right.
Gone Baby Gone was a pretty safe choice for Ben Affleck’s directorial debut. Mystic River already proved that movies about children in danger—set in Boston, and adapted from novels by Dennis Lehane—worked quite well, thank you very much. And it appears to have been a pretty canny move: It opened to nearly uniformly positive reviews, it’s given brother Ben a fresh shot of artistic viability and bolstered brother Casey’s reputation as a thespian (something The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford should have taken care of with feet to spare if anybody had bothered seeing it).
Gone Baby Gone, by my count, is the third recent and most extreme film in a new sub-genre I’d like to call Boston Gothic. It started in Mystic River, possibly reached its peak in The Departed, and finds its purest expression in Gone Baby Gone. The main point of Boston Gothic pictures is pretty simple: to show just how depraved and disgusting the white working class of Boston is. Whether this is an accurate picture or not, Boston Gothic movies are to South Boston pretty much what early 90s gangster rap was to South Central L.A.—a curiously entertaining freakshow that exploits the worst fears of outsiders.
That’s the part that truly works about Gone Baby Gone. Ben has gone back to his Boson roots to point a camera at the filthiest, most embarrassing corners and to rub our faces in it. And I can’t say that it’s ineffective. The settings and the extras in Gone Baby Gone have a feel of authenticity that we’ve only seen lately coming out of Hollywood from other Boston Gothic films. Authenticity probably isn’t even the right term—it’s more like extreme authenticity. Outside of Cops and the less respectable daytime talk shows, this is a White America we usually don’t get to see in the media: lazy, dumbly hedonistic, proudly ignorant, and self-pitying.
All this is to say is that Gone Baby Gone gets off to an enthralling—if guiltily so—start, then sort of falls apart when the genre conventions that apparently made up Lehane’s novel can’t be avoided. Casey Affleck—and apparently his wife—play a pair of private detectives hired to investigate the disappearance of a little girl from the home of the woman who might legitimately lay claim to a coffee cup with “World’s Worst Mommy” written on it (played by the magnificent Amy Ryan). Affleck exploits his neighborhood connections (he appears to be both Yuppie and Southie when he needs to be, a curious, seemingly impossible mix they don’t really bother explaining) to track down a missing girl by talking to people who won’t talk to the police. This leads him from one depraved Boston setting to another, and gets him mixed up with a typically intense performance by Ed Harris.
I can’t really go into what Gone Baby Gone’s specific, glaring story problems are without mowing over spoiler after spoiler, so I’ll just say here that it involves the movie having three or four Third Acts and Morgan Freeman playing a Boston police captain named “Doyle.” The atmosphere and tone of Gone Baby Gone are sustained throughout, and that’s what Affleck proves to be very good at as a director. Unfortunately, as a co-writer, he’s not so hot on credible plot points or not giving into the temptation to give actor’s Big Oscar Speeches that are kind of the bane of actors-turned-writer/directors. Besides Third Act genre plot turns that seem to belong to a different, less-dignified picture, the last reel of the film is mostly full of Morgan Freeman or Casey Affleck or whoever gunning for an Oscar for their mantelpiece by Explaining Their Principles in earnest, page-long monologues. It’s a shame, because somewhere inside Gone Baby Gone is a really good movie.