Monday, March 10, 2008

Burn, Baby, Burn

With nothing else particularly going on at the moment that I can bring myself to comment on, we'll stick with movies. Specifically, another of this past year's noteworthy entries: actor Ben Affleck's directorial debut Gone, Baby Gone. In addition to directing, Affleck also had a hand, with Aaron Stockard, in adapting the Dennis Lehane book of the same name into the screenplay, and he has brought on board a very strong cast, including his brother Casey and veteran actors Morgan Freeman, Amy Ryan (in an Oscar-nominated role), Michelle Monaghan, Ed Harris and John Ashton among others.

I must say that neither Ben Affleck nor his brother Casey have made much of an impression on me in any capacity, though I liked the elder Affleck's work with Matt Damon with their screenplay for 1997's Good Will Hunting. But as actors both Afflecks exude a certain youthful slacker-ness that inclined me to dismiss their work as pop-culture fluff. This movie quickly puts a stop to this line of thinking about both men. Indeed, I may have been wrong here all along: Casey Affleck is said to be a revelation in The Assassination of Jesse James, and this movie now strongly motivates me to check that one out.

The story follows a young, boyfriend / girlfriend team of private investigators (Casey Affleck and Monaghan) who are hired to look into the disappearance of the young daughter of a drug-addicted single mom (Ryan). With the police already on high alert at the girl's disappearance, nobody welcomes the young detectives into the mix, and the two seem to run into a striking hostility at almost every turn. This resistance only further piques the determination of the detectives, and we come to wonder if there's something more than inhospitality at work. The events unfold in such a way that we end up astride a really difficult, fundamental question, the kind of issue where middle ground is hard to find and even harder to defend.

If this brilliant condensation of a core issue is Lehane's primary gift to the film, then kudos to Director Affleck for not losing sight of it, and to the cast for doing so seamless a job of setting us up for the brick wall they so deftly place in our way at the end. Although there is a fair amount of action in the film, it's really this skillful, methodical unfolding of the story's many petals that delivers us so deftly into the dilemma, and it's that dilemma that will have you talking with your friends for hours afterward.

Like with Good Will Hunting, there is a sense of this picture being an exposé of a world the Afflecks know intimately rather than an adventurous foray into new territory. No matter, with so compelling a story, we can forgive them sticking close to home; and the payoff is that Affleck knows what to show in order to bring the place to life for us. Many of the movie's extras (and even some of the smaller speaking roles) are handled by citizens of the neighborhood, and there is an unmistakable authenticity to the look and feel of the movie.

Lastly, I have to put in my plug for Amy Ryan, whose nomination for an Oscar was clearly not a mistake. It takes guts to play someone so profoundly depraved, though Ryan has the satisfaction of knowing that her persona sits at the very heart of the film's big dilemma. She's not the first person, of course, to tackle the Unsavory Character mantle ( Daniel Day-Lewis also comes to mind this year), but she gives a virtuoso turn here for a character that guarantees a strong reaction in spite of relatively little screen time. I can't help thinking it must have been a thrill for her as an actor to take this on. I don't think she topples my pick (and subsequent Oscar winner) Tilda Swinton, but after seeing this movie I think it was a very, very close race.

Grade: A-

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