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Enough to Make Me Pine for Eastwood

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Clint Eastwood gets disrespected a lot around here, so it’s important now and again to recognize that he’s made a genuine cinematic contribution as a director. Scott and I might disagree as to the level of his achievement with Unforgiven and (perhaps) Letters from Iwo Jima, but I’d think we’d concur that Mystic River is an outstanding piece of work. Just how well Eastwood handled the Lehane novel was driven home last night when I watched the unfortunate Gone Baby Gone.

As mentioned, Gone Baby Gone is based on a Dennis Lehane novel (Lehane has also done work for The Wire, and the commonalities are evident) and covers much the same territory as Mystic River; the nexus of child molestation with white ethnic neighborhood politics. I haven’t read either novel, so can’t say anything conclusive about the relative strength of the source material for either film. I can say, however, that Ben Affleck (who directed and co-wrote the screenplay) set out to make An Important Serious Film that would, hopefully, go some distance to getting his career back on track after J-Lo, Daredevil, and several other bad choices. He covers some of the increasingly familiar territory of white ethnic Boston (Boston and Baltimore are the new New York as far as police procedurals go) decently enough, although without ever reaching the insight into the structure of those neighborhoods that we find in The Departed or especially Mystic River. Affleck grew up in Cambridge and put that experience to some good effect Good Will Hunting, while Eastwood is anything but a native, but for whatever reason (more experience, more talent, more distance from the subject matter) the latter paints a far more compelling picture of how a neighborhood actually functions, especially where criminal and police life meet, than the former.

That’s fine; saying that a movie isn’t as good as Mystic River isn’t a fair critique. Affleck coaxes some good acting out of his under-rated brother, and paints a reasonably effective picture both of the deteriorating relationship between the protagonist and his girlfriend, and of the dysfunction in the family of the victim. He even manages to do a solid job of weaving that dysfunction into the tapestry of the neighborhood. Unfortunately, the situation deteriorates from there. Although there are elements of the police procedural aspect that recall the Wire (including a cameo by Michael Williams, aka Omar Little), Affleck doesn’t handle the police well; for me the plot barely held together while I was in the theater, collapsing utterly when I took time to give it a second thought. Morgan Freeman delivers an inexplicably weak performance, although Ed Harris does well enough with the material that he’s given. Part of the problem is that the cops are given a panoply of often contradictory motivations, there actions being somewhat explicable from one point of view, then utterly nonsensical after the next twist. When, afterwards, you sit down and think about what the main police characters actually did, the plot makes not a lick of sense.

The biggest problem, however, stems from Affleck’s desire to make An Important Serious Film. Without going into spoilerish detail, in order to convince us that he’s making an ISF, he has to give us a Moral Conundrum, and he has to kill a kid. The former is presented as the film shambles to its collapse, and involves a key decision made by our protagonist. Unfortunately, we know so little about our protagonist that we can’t a) reasonably predict what decision he’s planning to make, or b) explain why he made it. That’s a problem; the end of a movie is supposed to flow from its beginning. Affleck the director gives us some hint of where his protagonist is coming from (pay attention to the discussion of deep, non-consensual identification in the opening monologue), but it’s fair to say that the apparently decisive considerations make themselves evident only in the first and last two minutes of the film, and even then only in a “What? Huh? Oh, I suppose maybe that’s what he was getting at…” kind of sense. As for the kid, I won’t go into details, but I very much felt that the child was essentially sacrificed on the altar of Ben Affleck’s quest for seriousness. What I heard was this: “Would someone who wasn’t Serious kill a kid? Take me Seriously!” Now, I hardly opposed to the killing of kids in movies, but it should be done for some purpose other than the director’s quest for relevance.

Gone Baby Gone isn’t wholly without charm, but I can’t recommend it. Watch Mystic River again, or sit down in front of a few episodes of the Wire.

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