Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Ben Affleck Gets It Right (Gasp!)

Note: Here is Gina's take on this flick. One thing she and I agree on is that Amy Ryan, at right, shines in her role as Helene, the mother-from-hell in this newly released drama. - LT

By Gina Carbone

This is the kind of movie that gets people talking. What would I do if it were my call? Since I went by myself, I asked myself. My answer was the same as Patrick Kenzie’s and I’m not too sure it was the right one either.

The best decision a director can make is to choose strong material. Ben Affleck proves himself a smart director by making "Gone Baby Gone" his major debut (he shot some smaller films previously, including one called "I Killed My Lesbian Wife, Hung Her on a Meat Hook, and Now I Have a Three-Picture Deal at Disney"). He and Aaron Stockard adapted Dennis Lehane’s layered, twisting, morally confounding novel into a sharp script that keeps moving forward while always keeping you guessing.

The second best decision a director can make is to surround himself with a good cast and crew. The better half of Bennifer put together a team of seasoned Oscar-nominated actors to tell his story and let two-time Oscar-winning cinematographer John Toll cover them in a dark, gritty constancy. The production design, set decoration and costumes are almost frighteningly true to life and clearly spearheaded by someone who knows his turf.

Affleck’s loyalty is near legendary (supposedly he’s still friends with all of his exes) and in addition to picking Stockard — who appears to have no film credits to his name other than assistant work on "Good Will Hunting" and "The Talented Mr. Ripley" — he makes the bold choice of giving the main role to his younger, lesser-known brother, Casey. It pays off. I’m no fan of nepotism (or Ben Affleck, normally), but Affleck The Younger holds his own as Patrick Kenzie in a thriller packed with good performances.

The story itself is the real star, but if anyone has a chance of stealing its thunder it’s Amy Ryan as Helene — the brash, drink- drugs- and life-weathered single mother of Amanda (Madeline O’Brien), a sweet little girl who goes missing in Dorchester, Mass.

A massive manhunt is launched, led on the police end by Capt. Jack Doyle (Morgan Freeman), who started the police’s missing children’s unit after the abduction of his own young daughter.

Working with Doyle is Remy Bressant (Ed Harris), a hothead detective who creates his own moral universe outside the law.

Bressant locks horns with Kenzie, a morally self-righteous private detective who is hired by Amanda’s aunt, Beatrice (played by Harris’ real-life wife Amy Madigan) to supplement the police investigation. Kenzie and his partner, Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan) are both Dorchester natives who apparently found their way out of the same cracks Helene fell in.

On one end of the spectrum is Ryan’s fearless performance as the "abomination" that is Helene. Now THERE’S a character. On the other end is Monaghan, playing a thankless and, frankly, useless role as Kenzie’s personality-free other half. She contributes nothing to their detective work and only seems on screen to voice the flip side of his thoughts. She’s also the only one I don’t buy as a local.

Other than that, this is the most authentic-looking Boston film I’ve seen in years, including "The Departed." My ears are still bleeding from the accents in "Thirteen Days" and "Blown Away" and it’s nice to hear some authentic sounds. (Don’t give me any blather about Dorchester accents vs. Charlestown vs. Quincy or whatever else.) The shapes, sizes and faces also remind me of the Massachusetts of my teen years and it’s refreshing to see someone show it in its un-glamorized glory.

I’m torn between thinking there should be more films like this or fewer. I love the moral discussions, the difficult "Sophie’s Choice" decisions. On the other hand, how bleak, how wretched, how depressingly realistic. There’s no question this is a good film, but it’s also a queasy one (which includes, you should know, references to pedophilia). What would you do?

Gina Carbone wishes she had cute freckles like Morgan Freeman. She can be reached at gcarbone@seacoastonline.com.