A Review of Ben Affleck’s “Gone Baby Gone”

Who knew that behind the camera Ben Affleck would be able to deliver such an audacious and wickedly depressing piece of Dickensian subversion?  Against all odds, his debut as a director is on par with Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter and Robert Redford’s Ordinary People.

Masterfully Crafted Descent into White Trash Hell, 29 October 2007
9/10
Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

In some ways, “Gone Baby Gone” plays like a horror film. It depicts a seedy world full of drug dealers, murderers, corrupt cops, pedophiles, child killers, and down-on-their-luck Bostonians trapped in an urbanized “white trash” hell where the two African-American characters, a Haitian drug lord and a noble police chief (Morgan Freeman), wield the most power from opposite sides of the law. Director Affleck showers his hometown with humanistic shots of everyday people milling about, seemingly minding their own business, while their world decays and rots around them. The socio-political subtexts of “Gone Baby Gone” tick quietly like a time-bomb underneath the surface of an otherwise rote crime flick about the race to find a missing four year-old girl. I imagine this deep, dark, and morally questionable under-pinning is what has kept mainstream audiences from connecting with the film while critics have hailed it as a masterpiece.

Adapted from a Dennis Lehane novel (author of the similarly themed and depressing “Mystic River”), “Gone Baby Gone” is masterfully crafted from the opening shot to the closing scene. Ben Affleck proves to be a far better talent behind the screen than in front of it, and while the casting of his younger brother in the lead role may seem like nepotism, Casey Affleck gives a richly complex performance as the private eye who uncovers the truth behind the kidnapping of the little girl. The dialog, strung poetically with grim and vulgar Bostonian street-talk, reminded me of “Good Will Hunting.” With Ben Affleck credited as a co-screenwriter here, this film disproves the popular myth that Matt Damon (or an unnamed third party) was the primary force behind their Oscar-winning screenplay for “Good Will Hunting.”

Like the best of the actors-turned-directors (Robert Redford, or “Mystic River” maestro Clint Eastwood), Ben Affleck is able to get his cast to deliver amazingly rich performances oozing with pathos. Ed Harris, who sometimes over-acts in one-note fashion, is a powerhouse as the lead officer on the case and delivers quite possibly the best performance of his career; his character’s seething rage and fractured view of justice will leave you literally shaking. Amy Ryan, as the strung-out mother of the girl, delivers the type of pitch-perfect portrayal that the Supporting Actress Oscar was tailor made for. Casey Affleck, following his great turn in “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” shows that he is an actor to be reckoned with, raw and emotive, and equal or superior in many ways to contemporaries like Ryan Gosling. Older brother Ben is such an actor’s director, he even manages to deliver a heartbreaking scene towards the end where Michelle Monaghan (in the otherwise thankless role of girlfriend and partner to the male lead) displays a range you didn’t see coming.

For the acting, for the dialog, for the intricately complex and devastating crime drama that unfolds, and yes, for the directing, “Gone Baby Gone,” as depressing a piece of subversion as it is, ranks as one of the year’s very best.

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database:

http://imdb.com/title/tt0452623/usercomments-54

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Check out my reviews of past crime thrillers set in Boston:

The Departed:  http://imdb.com/title/tt0407887/usercomments-359

Mystic River:  http://imdb.com/title/tt0327056/usercomments-222

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A Review of Andrew Dominiks’s “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”

The Expectation of Applause, 6 October 2007
7/10
Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

“The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” is a handsomely mounted, film-school like study of the last days of the infamous James’ Gang by director Andrew Dominik. Growing up in awe of Jesse James (Brad Pitt), Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) finally gets to live out his dream of living side by side with his idol when his brother, Charles (Sam Rockwell) joins the gang. Young Robert quickly learns that the exploits of the murderous train-robbers are far from the exciting flights of fancy he grew up reading about in newspapers and dime-store novels. A series of cowardly acts in the wake of double-crossings and humiliations ultimately lead to the titular event.

The style of the film is often visually arresting and downright disturbing, especially in the acts of violence, which leave the most gruesome parts slightly off camera, but are frequently shot and framed in such a way as to maximize shock value and leave an uncomfortable feeling of tension in the theater seats. Dominik sometimes relies too heavily on voice-over narration torn straight from the book upon which the film is based leaving us to assume that aside from dreadfully beautiful photography of passing clouds and desolate Midwestern landscapes, he wasn’t always sure how he visually wanted to tell the story. This leads to a sometimes snails’ pace as the plot unfolds, though the haunting Oscar-worthy cinematography from Roger Deakins and mesmerizing music score from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis eventually get under your skin even as the hands of the clock seem to move slower as if stuck in a pretty photograph of a nightmare.

The acting in the film is superb from all involved. However, the performances often blur the line between caricatured scenery-chewing and emotional nuance (especially from Pitt and Rockwell). While there is some entertainment to be found in the lighter scenes of camaraderie amongst the gang members, the audience never really feels anything for the characters aside from sharing their sense of paranoia and fear knowing that around any corner someone will be betrayed and shot. The film also suffers from some scene stealing cameos from James Carville as the governor hell-bent on catching Jesse and the otherwise lovely Zooey Deschanel, who appears out of nowhere for a few moments about ten minutes after the film should have rightfully ended.

When the credits finally rolled, I wasn’t sure what to make of the film. There’s some unforgettable imagery (my personal favorite being the almost surreal depiction of the cloth-masked robbers waiting in the dark woods as the train comes roaring down the tracks), and many commendable artistic elements to be found in the film. If the idea was to leave the audience feeling the era showcased was a tension-riddled and violently lonely existence, then the film succeeded wonderfully. Those seeking a more pure entertainment will most assuredly be left stressed and stretched to their limits.

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database:

http://imdb.com/title/tt0443680/usercomments-22