It rained this week in my hometown, Portland. Cooler now, leaves reddening, a change in the air. And a change in the movie-house. Summer’s over: The kids are back in school, the screen parade of teenagers with attitude and those tedious comedies about losers outta control have let up, for now. Good. As adults our fantasies are different, perhaps more character-driven. Mine are. That’s why it’s great seeing The Town arrive. It marks the follow up to Ben Affleck’s remarkable directorial debut in “Gone Baby Gone.” Flawed people, extreme actions and Boston seen with an eye for the small, telling details. Here we have vivid stories, similiar in texture if not in details, and the writing / directing touch of Ben Affleck. That’s our Smack. Is it enough to forgive and forget Gigli?
In a normal world – even the Charlestown section of Boston – Doug MacRay (Ben Affleck) might never meet Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall), except his mask-wearing crime crew robs the bank where Claire works. The robbers take her hostage but release her unharmed, only Claire now carries Doug’s heart and doesn’t know he’s one of her captors. At least not yet. You just know this won’t resolve simply. This is bleak real estate where only the rough survive, and sometimes they don’t. One character says of MacRay’s runaway mother: “If there’s a heaven, son, she ain’t in it.” Charlestown is a purgatory on Earth, where a driven FBI agent (Jon Hamm from Mad Men) wages an uphill battle to keep the scales balanced. Others (Jeremy Renner, Chris Cooper, Pete Postlethwaite, Blake Lively) have no such concern. For them there are no moral answers. They don’t even acknowledge the questions. In this landscape, bullets fly, people die and a small lesson emerges that love changes people. Ben Affleck serves triple duty: As actor, director and writer in a script he adapted with with Peter Craig and Aaron Stockard from a novel written by Chuck Hogan.
The Defending Champion
Gone Baby Gone begins in high gear: The search is on for Amanda McCready. Someone snatched the four year old from her South Boston home while her mom Helene is out of the house. Helene McCready (Amy Ryan) is nobody’s idea of Mother of the Year: A drug-abusing cokehead drunk whose foul mouth would make a sailor faint. Her relatives hire private investigators Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro (Casey Affleck and Michelle Monaghan) to gain information from people “who don’t talk to the police.” From these tough locals living on the margins they learn nothing is what it seems — not the police or their street contacts playing the angles. Police officials (Morgan Freeman and Ed Harris) have their own agenda and manipulate Patrick to tie up a few messy loose ends. The body count rises. It leads to an astonishing discovery that raises serious questions about right and wrong and the consequences of our actions. This exchange between Affleck and Harris’ characters frames the issues well:
- Kenzie (Affleck): “…Murder’s a sin..”
- Brussant (Harris): “It depends who you do it to. You gotta take a side. You molest a child.. you beat a child.. you’re not on my side. You see me coming you better run — because I’m gonna lay you the fuck down. Easy.”
Ben Affleck made his directorial debut with a script he and Aaron Stockard wrote from Dennis Lehane’s 1998 novel Gone Baby Gone.
Just as John Ford became associated with Westerns, Ben Affleck may become the film maker of Boston. He is pitch-perfect in rendering the sounds and look and the people of his hometown. Add a compelling story (Town has one) and what a cast: Town features superior talents in Chris Cooper and Pete Posthleswaite who spend too little time on screen. If Mad Men didn’t already make John Hamm a star, this film would. As strongly as they perform, they play support to Affleck and Rebecca Hall. They are perfectly cast for one another and you don’t really mind the unlikely nature of their connection. Gone Baby Gone also develops a credible sense of place: You feel the tired desperation in Boston neighborhoods like Dorchester and Roxbury. You want to wash off the grime and scent of stale beer from Murphy’s Law Tavern. Ben Affleck knows his hometown well and assembles a superior cast, beginning with his brother Casey. He is remarkable for his restraint and attitude. Amy Ryan rightly earned an Oscar nomination as Katie’s feral mother, Helene McCready. They are so effective they nearly overwhelm strong performances from Harris, Freeman, Monaghan and Amy Madigan. The use of local residents gives Gone Baby Gone a tone of authenticity you won’t find at Central Casting. One of them, Jill Quigg, a non-actor, delivers a ferocious performance as Helene’s pal, Dottie. Finally, two movies worth your time.
I like Gone Baby Gone even more three years later. Hang onto it. If Ben Affleck continues making films this textured and riveting you’ll regard him the way we now see Clint Eastwood: As a film artist working at the highest level of achievement. Our winner, The Town, does not alter that emerging picture. This film is superbly-acted, sharply directed and is comparable to recent “heist” movies in name only. It’s much better. Hey, blame it on the change of season, and Ben — All is forgiven.