Thursday, November 01, 2007

Gone, Baby, Gone

"Gone, Baby, Gone" starts out really strong, with a riveting mystery of a kidnapped four year old girl, and two private investigators (Casey Affleck and Michele Monaghan) in over their heads with their first real case. There are, of course, grizzled cops with attitude who don't want to cooperate with them (including an-always-hot Ed Harris, whose spectacular facial angles still manage to cut through the gray beard his character wears.) There's also the kindly gruff police chief, in this case Morgan Freeman, who is haunted by the kidnapping and murder of his own young daughter years earlier. (He keeps newspaper clippings about it framed on the walls of his office, and offers his past readily to strangers such as the private eyes, the press, and of course, the public.) He tells his detectives to work with the young couple, for no good reason, which becomes even more unbelievable as the plot unfolds.

There is a second mystery, that of a missing boy, and the film manages to move from one to the other in its first two thirds, leaving you only a bit concerned that neither will be satisfactorily solved. Eventually, they are, and while they are linked by circumstance, luckily these connections are believable and well-written without being cliche. Ben Affleck directs, in his feature film debut, and there was much about the visual moodiness of the it that I liked. It has much of the feel of "Mystic River," no doubt because of its setting in working class Boston, and its origin as a Dennis Lehane novel. There is intricacy in the plot, and in the characters - the kidnapped girl's mother is a druggie and a slut, one cop is a liar and another accepts a forced resignation with, well, calm resignation. I was lulled into thinking that this was going to be a really satisfying movie experience.

And, then, whoosh. After 90 minutes or so of being securely in the point of view of Casey Affleck's young earnest Patrick, there is a scene where we are privy to flashbacks from another character, flashbacks that give us insights into the mystery that Patrick doesn't have. (Cue Scooby "whu-uh?" here.) Completely threw me. It's a cheat to give us a solution that the hero, whom we're following, doesn't yet have. It's a "Murder, She Wrote" quick ending. And it's only the start. In quick succession, Patrick figures out what we know, helped by the fast flashbacks that intersperse the "confessions" that are offered him. And what was a nicely complex and nuanced movie falters into detective TV, with neatly wrapped solutions in pretty visual packages just in time for the credits.

Compare that to the wonderfully acted scene where Ed Harris's character makes another, smaller confession to Patrick, in a moment of drunken grief. He tells us, not with pretty flashbacks, but with the strength of his words and his talent, and we can see it just as powerfully. Film is a visual medium, yes, but it's also a medium for actors, and an actor who shines in small moments like that is what makes a film more than just mediocre.

To be fair, the ending is not simple, with Patrick forced to make a decision that will cost him either way, and on which most audience members would not be able to agree. The film gives us Patrick's decision and a glimpse at its consequences, including a quiet closing scene that almost brought the movie back for me.


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