Tuesday, 5 February 2008

GONE BABY GONE (Ben Affleck, 2007)

Gone Baby Gone is the directorial debut of actor Ben Affleck, adapted by Affleck and Aaron Stockard from the novel by Dennis Lehane, who also wrote the novel on which Clint Eastwood's Mystic River was based. Gone Baby Gone is the fourth of a series of five Lehane novels based on the P.I. couple Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro. Lehane has also contributed screenplays for the best show on television, now or ever, The Wire.

Like most actor turned directors, there is not a strong or distinct visual style here, although there are some shots that linger in the mind, especially the still included above as well as the final image. The power of the film comes from the story, and Affleck smartly allows the plot and its moral ramifications to take center stage. There are great performances here from Amy Ryan and Ed Harris in particular, and the casting of Affleck's brother Casey in the lead works because he does not overwhelm the role. The same is true with Michelle Monaghan as the his partner. These characters are meant to be the ciphers through which the audience must think about the larger political and social issues of the film.

There is a strong case to the made that the auteur here is Lehane, and this extends to Mystic River. I think, auteur theory notwithstanding, that there is a greater affinity between these two films than between, for example, Mystic River and any other Eastwood film. We'll have to wait to see where Affleck goes from here, but this is a better debut than anyone had any reason to expect.

I do not want to reveal much about the specifics of the ending, but it does deal with a situation in which a choice has to be made, and the values that represent each side of this choice cannot be reconciled. This makes the film an anomaly within Hollywood. In 1985, film scholar Robert Ray wrote his study A Certain Tendency of the Hollywood Cinema, 1930-1980. For Ray this certain tendency was for Hollywood films to set up a choice between two sets of values, often variations on the Western's civilization/wilderness, community/ individual dichotomy, and two sets of heroes, often variations on the outlaw hero versus the official hero. The ideological project of most films was to reconcile these two binaries and convince the audience that American ideology was not in fact as contradictory as it appeared. The classical example of this is Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942) in which the character of Rick Blaine joins the community at the end to fight against the Nazis but retains his individual freedom by sending away his love interest with the official hero. Thus no real choice had to be made between freedom and responsibility. And even today, few Hollywood films demand any real acknowledgment of the necessity of choice. Admirably, Gone Baby Gone insists on this choice and does not make any attempt to soften its difficulty by reconciling the deep social and political divisions the film depicts.

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