A Triumph of Technique Over Meaning

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The story is so current it seems lifted from today’s headlines: a beautiful blond toddler is taken from her bed while her mother visits a neighbor in the same building. Only this time the parents of the toddler aren’t well-educated, well-spoken physicians from England vacationing in Portugal; she’s an unmarried, foul-mouthed coke addict from Boston. “Gone Baby Gone” follows the efforts of a local private investigator, Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck), as he tries to find the child and return her to her mother.

Inexperienced with kidnapping cases, Kenzie is nevertheless more suited to this investigation than the cops or the FBI because of his inside knowledge of the neighborhood. He went to school with these thugs. They know him. Like a feral dog grudgingly but menacingly acknowledging others, Affleck must bare his teeth and show his strength as he enters seedy bars and pool halls where a punch in the nose or a knife in the gullet is as common as a dish of peanuts on the table. Small in stature and baby-faced, he asserts his power with language and eye contact, peppering every sentence with the f-word the way a Valley girl once used the word “like.” Only in the quiet moments with his partner-girlfriend Angie Genarro (Michelle Monaghan) does he allow his demeanor and his language to soften, subtly showing that his character is blue-collar, but not low class.

Like his brother’s character, know- ing the neighborhood is where first- time director Ben Affleck shines. A native Bostonian, he pays careful attention to getting it right. His backgrounds are detailed and authentic; his characters, especially the extras, look stupid and grotesque. The beautiful Amy Ryan (“Dan in Real Life”) is mousy and plain as the missing toddler’s mother, ignorant and spaced out. But the world in which these ugly characters reside is beautiful. Watch for the cinematography at the quarry. Magnificent.

Standing too long in his brother’s considerable acting shadow, Casey Affleck has been given mostly small sidekick roles in the past (the “Ocean’s” trilogy, ”American Pie”), seemingly as a concession to Ben’s Hollywood influence rather than as a tribute to Casey’s talent. But Casey is a strong actor in his own right. I saw him at the Garrick Theater in London a few years ago in “This Is Our Youth,” opposite Ben’s good friend Matt Damon (possibly another fraternal favor). Casey dominated the stage. I can still feel the raw despair of his character as I return to the performance in my mind. With his starring roles in this film and the almost simultaneous release of “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” Casey Affleck has pushed his way out of Ben’s shadow and into the limelight.

Although it is technically brilliant, “Gone Baby Gone” (based on the book by Dennis Lehane, author of “Mystic River”) has more holes in it than a slice of Swiss cheese. A successful thriller must pull the viewer along with nod- ding agreement. As each new twist unfolds, the viewer wants to think, “Of course it had to be…”with a slap of recognition to the top of the forehead. I don’t want to give away the plot of “Gone Baby Gone,” but my reaction during the increasingly twisted denouement was, “Wait! There’s a much easier way! They don’t have to do this!” It was easier to believe John McClane could shoot down a helicopter with a car in the latest “Die Hard” film than that – well, I did promise not to give away the plot.

In the end, the film successfully lifts the mat on Boston’s front door- step to reveal the ugly bugs teeming

Affleck must show his strength as he enters bars and pool halls where a knife in the gullet is as common as a dish of peanuts on the table.

 

 

beneath, but in my opinion the story does not work. I was left contemplating the sad issue of children born to ill- prepared mothers, but without a sense of satisfaction at the way the issue was addressed. Technically brilliant, yes, but textually flawed.

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