(Previous Somebody Asked Me To Be An Expert In Something were part of a Film Noir and then Neo Noir series that I was asked to help program and host. Starting with this entry, I am now the sole programmer, and the films will no longer be just crime films. Once again this is written for speech so I apologize for any irregularities of cadence)
(I'm not going to lie its been pretty f-ing cool seeing these around town)
Dennis Lehane has gotten unusually lucky with his adaptations. Clint Eastwood did a fine job bringing his Mystic River to the screen, and just this year Scorsese delivered a fantastic adaptation of his Shutter Island. And yet I’d argue that out of those rather heavy hitting directors Ben Affleck has done the best job of bringing Lehane’s singular tone to the screen.
Unlike the other films made from his work, Gone Baby Gone is an adaptation of one of the Kenzie and Genarro books that make up the core of Lehane’s fiction. The five novels follow the two private eyes through the Boston underworld with a uniqueness of both setting and character that manages to set them apart from the glut of Private Eye novels.
Patrick Kenzie isn’t a bruised white knight like Phillip Marlowe. He’s not a smooth operator like Dashell Hammet’s continental op. Nor is he even a particular brilliant detective. He’s a smartass, whose managed to keep his good heart despite all the evidence the world has shown him. Casey Affleck gives nepotism a good name, bringing him to life with all of his conflict and wit intact. As does Michelle Monaghan as Genaro. Though if the film has a flaw its that its more of a Kenzie film. Mostly for narrative reason’s a slight change is made to series mythology and Genarro is made something of an outsider, so there’s someone there to have exposition delivered to. The problem is that it ends up making her feel a little less then a full on partner and sidelines her for far too much of the runtime.
On the whole though casting is one of the film’s strongest suits. Ed Harris gives one of his strongest performances in years, Morgan Freeman playing not so much against type but to it gives a great twist on his normal persona, Amy Ryan gives a career best performance. And perhaps most gratifyingly the under used Amy Madigan finally gets a role to sink her teeth into. Much of the rest of the cast is filled out by natives, which lends the film a realism that makes other gritty Boston crime films like The Departed, feel glamorized. No matter how intense Scorsese got, when you see an old man smoking through his tracheotomy is the type of image that you don’t get from central casting.
Most of these novels aren’t “who dunnits”. That’s not to say that Lehane doesn’t write some excellent mysteries into them. But the center of the books are always around a moral question. The question at the heart of each Dennis Lehane novel isn’t “Who kidnapped the heiress?” Or “Who has the money” but “How can I wake up and look at myself in the mirror?”
The fact that Ben Affleck has the talent, or even the inclination to address such a question may be surprising to those who know him best as the dopey would be matinee idol he was at the beginning of the decade, and not the talented character actor he has proven himself to be before and afterwards. It’d be easy enough to credit this to the fact that Affleck grew up in the neighborhoods and around the people that Lehane writes about. His familiarity and eye for people certainly adds a certain lived in feel to the film and his second film The Town coming out in a couple of weeks, returns him to this comfortable territory. But that’s certainly not the only thing Affleck brings to the table. Without giving away too much of the plot, there are scenes in here that could come out from a horror film, and scenes that could come out of a buddy comedy, and the way Affleck is able to juggle these tones both the grotesque and the light proves him to be a versatile skilled director. Though his next film The Town is based upon a much weaker novel, I’m looking forward to seeing what Affleck can do with it.
While this is the most recent film that we’ve shown so far in this series, Gone Baby Gone feels like a film from a different era. It’d be easy to imagine it as a lost film of the seventies from someone like Michael Ritchie or William Friedkin. It’s a dark film that asks hard questions and doesn’t bother with easy answers. In other words it treats it’s audience like adults. And a filmmaker whose willing to do that is a valuable one indeed.
This is a dark film, but its an honest one.