Saturday, October 27, 2007

Questions Of Morality, With A Boston Accent

By Lars Trodson

I think the reason that audiences – or at least half of the possible audience – have rejected Ben Affleck’s “Gone Baby Gone” may be because of the terrible argument Michelle Monaghan’s character has to make at the end of the film.

Monaghan plays Angie, partner and girlfriend to Patrick; the couple comprise a pair of low rent private detectives who have been hired to find a missing four year old girl. The little girl, Amanda, is the daughter of a slatternly, foul-mouthed, coked-up loser named Helene (played by Amy Ryan). It’s telling that the detectives are hired not by Helene but by Bea, the aunt (Amy Madigan), who has problems of her own. It’s not a pretty picture, but as is the case when any child goes missing all those involved – and many who are not – simply want the child returned safely.

In the end – spoiler alert – little Amanda is found, and the couple she ends up with, the couple that has kidnapped her - provides the story its supposed moral twist. Amanda is now with a couple who could possibly (if we overlook the gaping holes in the story) provide a better life than the one with her own biological family. And so it is, at the end of the picture, that Angie argues with Patrick that he shouldn’t turn in the kidnappers and let Amanda live her life with this new family.

Angie is, of course, making an argument to keep Amanda from her own mother. This is the same Angie who didn’t want to take the case because the thought of anyone kidnapping a child was too disturbing; it cut too deep. This is the same Angie who has a change of heart later and jumps into a quarry in the dark to try to save the child after it’s thought the little girl was in the water. But in a moment that sets aside both the logic of the story and the logic of human emotion, it is left to poor Michelle Monaghan to try to sell the argument that the kidnappers might be better parents than the poor unfortunate loser Helene.

Sometimes audiences reject a film just based on the gut feeling that something is irreparably wrong with it – that something, indeed, might even be offensive; offensive, that is, other than in the sense that it is offending you through the more obvious channels of sex and violence.

But as Angie was opening her mouth and stating her case in the final moments of the film, I kept murmuring half aloud, “No, no, no, no, no.” But she does, and it was at that moment the film lost me completely. It may be that’s how the book, by Dennis Lehane, ends, and it may be that in the book this makes sense. It could be that the circumstances from which Amanda was taken are much, much worse in the book (as bad as they are in the film), but still.

I can’t conceive of a woman, and one as purportedly as sympathetic as Angie appears to be, making the argument that a child should be taken away from her mother (outside the woman being an officer of the court and she is just following a court order). I understand that young women, who would under normal circumstances be a big part of this film’s potential audience, would simply not want to sit through two hours of storytelling only to have the filmmakers say that if you violate certain moral codes you’re going to punished in the worst way by having your child taken away and given to – how to put this – better people. Kidnappers? And it hurt to have that argument made by the one truly sympathetic female character in the film. No one wants to hear that, and doubly so if you’re paying 10 bucks to hear it.

This is probably where screenwriters Ben Affleck and Aaron Stockard should have switched the dialogue and given the argument of nurture over nature to Casey Affleck’s Patrick, and to have Angie argue that bringing the child back to the mother is the best recourse, even if the mother is imperfect. You could see how this would make much more sense, and still give the movie the power it was going after. I think, obviously, it would have made the movie even been more powerful.

As it is, we’re left with this awful moral hole, despite the fact that Angie may be right in a purely utopian sense. Because here she’s not only making a dubious statement, she’s simply forgetting that while the family Amanda is now living with may have a nicer house, and the new parents may not be drug addicts or speak foully, or drink beer during the day, they are still so morally despicable they would kidnap a child, rip that child from her mother and aunt, to satisfy whatever parental urge is missing from their own lives. Even if we didn’t consider any of that Angie would still be wrong, but when we add that on top her argument is baffling and, in the end, a defeatist one for the audience.

And that’s too bad, because, leading up to it, there are many fine things in “Gone Baby Gone.” I thought it had one of the loveliest opening montages in recent memory, and you feel nicely transported to this place, this working class neighborhood of Dorchester – a place that overlooks the shining city of Boston like Brooklyn looks off in the distance at Manhattan. No one in these suburbs wishes they were either in Boston or Manhattan proper, by the way; the people in these smaller cities have admirably carved out their own identities in the shadow of their more famous, and less culturally defined, neighbors.

Dorchester is very much its own place, and Affleck quite rightly populated this film with local people who speak in those unmistakable regional and local Massachusetts accents and tones. The New York Times was right to call this one of the most authentic sounding movies set in Boston and the region ever made. It isn’t that I’m an expert, but I grew up in Rhode Island, which has a couple of very strong accents all its own, and I’ve spent enough time in Boston (having also lived there in the early 1980s), that I’ve got a pretty good sense of it.

Our colleague Gina Carbone once wrote about the Boston accent in film, and I think the only time I have ever contributed to her vast knowledge of film was when I suggested that the accents in a little over-looked film with Robert Mitchum called “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” had the most authentic Boston accents I had ever heard in a movie, up until this one. Take any other, whether it’s “The Departed” or “The Verdict” and you pretty much have disaster.

Some critics have equated all this with attempting to achieve a sense of realism in “Gone Baby Gone.” I don’t think movie directors are ever going for realism – at least not the smart ones – but what they are trying to do is create enough reality so that you suspend your disbelief for a couple of hours. The debate about whether movies can achieve any kind of realism is at least as old as film – beginning when the first audiences ran out of the theater thinking the filmed train approaching the station was going to run them over – to the films of Andy Warhol in the 1960s to this year’s Todd Haynes’ Dylan kaleidoscopic “I’m Not There.”

I simply come down on the side of those who believe that, no matter how gritty a film may be, it isn’t attempting to be real – it’s just trying to get certain details right. One reviewer said Affleck was being praised for the same kind of “sham realism” that Scorcese gets praised for. “Sham realism?” I think that maybe Martin Scorcese gets his milieu right, but he makes and has made some of the most stylized, unrealistic films ever produced. “Taxi Driver”, “Raging Bull” and “GoodFellas” succeed (partly) because of their success in transporting us to a New York that feels right and also because of their more obvious filmic rhythms, images, sounds and music. And for Christ sake, anyway, how can you have realism, sham or otherwise, when you have movie stars at the heart of your film? It’s ridiculous.

Well, in the case of “Gone Baby Gone” you have not so much movie stars as you do familiar faces (with the exception of Morgan Freeman, who is a genuine star and actor of unusual depth and grace, but given a pretty poor role here). Casey Affleck is new to me, and he has a nice, laconic nature in this film – making some of his more tough guy dialogue unbelievable – but he has a pleasing screen presence which may grow more heft as soon as he gets some more lines on his face and more experience on his side.

As much as Affleck’s Patrick is the center of the film, “Gone Baby Gone” belongs to Amy Ryan, who plays Helene. I don’t know Ryan, either, and so here’s a little confession: in the Arts & Leisure section of The Times a couple of weeks back, titled “Redemption Hunting”, the article quite rightly focused on the local actors and locales that Affleck was using (shot wonderfully, by the way, by John Toll), and there was an anecdote about a young woman who went up to Affleck and said “I should be in your movie.” The Times writer then went on to say the woman gave a “riveting” performance, and I was under the impression this inexperienced woman was actually Amy Ryan – because Ryan is so dead on and un-actorly. She’s so washed up and burnt out that I’m thinking only someone very unaware of how they would look on film would do the part that way – and with an authentic accent to boot. But, it turns out to be this Tony-award nominated actress Ryan.

What she is here – and I hate to do it, but it’s a point of reference – is the female counterpoint to Joe Pesci’s Joey LaMotta in “Raging Bull.” Joey had this stream of high comic invective that seemed to spring fresh from his fevered but tightly wired brain, and the same is true for Helene. She’s never at a loss for words, or the sharp and angry put-down. You’ve met these people, in your life, and part of the reason why they’re scary is because of their anger and part of the reason they’re scary is because, despite the fact that their lives are fucked up and in the dirt, is that you have more than a sneaking suspicion they are smarter than you. A lot smarter, not just intellectually but also in the most enviable way for us armchair people, they have street smarts, too. They have it all over us, and Helene is that person. You just know that if she applied herself for one second she could, in your own office, eat you up and kick you to the curb before you could order your frozen latte.

And so Ryan offers us a truly memorable screen character, and yet we feel cheated because Affleck has constructed his movie oddly, and we lose her about halfway through, and only get to see her again, briefly, still preening, still yakking on endlessly between gulps of beer, at the end. You realize this is one of those movies that suffers disproportionately when one of the supporting characters isn’t around. Kind of like what “Will & Grace” would have been like without Sean Hayes and Meghan Mullalley. If Ryan isn’t a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination, then the system has real problems.

But “Gone Baby Gone” also has Ed Harris, who is always, always great to watch. He’s never less than natural and always in command. (It was also nice to see Amy Madigan, she and Harris are married in real life, who has a great, foul line about Helene).

Unfortunately, it’s Michelle Monaghan who is given that last, important speech, and, as odious as it is, she doesn’t have the chops to sell it. Her character could very easily have been cut from the film and it wouldn’t have missed a beat; she’s largely reactive, anyway. She seems shoe-horned in during the whole thing, and wholly out of place when the screenplay takes Angie and Patrick into Boston’s underworld.

This is just movie talk, though, and we have to concentrate on that because “Gone Baby Gone” didn’t give us enough to chew on, even though it tried. There is at the heart of this story some questions, important questions, as to why people who should be parents don’t have any children, and why people who should never be parents can have children as easily as sneezing. It’s a question I ask myself all the time.

And then there is another question that is equally as sad, and one this movie poses even if it doesn’t mean to. We hear, all too frequently, of children who have gone missing, and we see the footage of entire communities getting out to try to find the child, and we hear of the Amber Alerts, and we hear, sooner or later, just how that story ends.

But as Affleck and Toll’s camera lingers on the faces of so many blasted out people, and when you see the faces of the girls smoking cigarettes on the porch of their tenement, and of the beaten up people drinking their beer early in the morning, the film forces us to ask if we are doing enough, or if we are doing anything at all, to help these children get ahead, and to make something of themselves as adults. Who – and what – will Amanda be when she’s all grown up? Because, after all, how many of us still go missing long after we’ve been found, and how many of us never really do with our lives what we should have even if we were never so-called lost to begin with?