Thursday, October 25, 2007
'Gone Baby Gone'- A Modern Morality Play
Perhaps you remember 'Good Will Hunting'. It was a promising beginning for Ben Afleck and his buddy Matt Damon, both of whom hail from the Boston area. But there lives went in very different direction after that. Matt Damon went on to being on the A list of top actors, and apart from his appearance in Hollywoodland as 'Superman' there has been very little to show for Ben Affleck's various ventures on the silver screen. With 'Gone Baby Gone' that has all changed. Here is a movie with depth, breadth, surprises, excellent acting, which raises profound moral questions worth pondering. If Ben Afleck is out of his depth here, he hides it well, for he both co-wrote the screenplay (adapted from a novel by another famous Bostonian), and he directed this film, which comes in at a svelt one hour and 55 minutes. There is not an ounce of filler in this film. What there is however is more than an ounce of foul language, something many blue collar Bostonians that I have regularly encountered in my many days in that place seem to have PhD's in. There is also some violence, but the R rating is surely mostly for the 'colorful' language.
This film has been aptly compared to that other recent Boston film of note, 'Mystic River' only while that one is film in blue tones as deep as that river itself, this film is more film noir, in the sense that it is dark in general-- dark in character, dark in mood. One feels like on is getting a personal tour in the upper levels of Dante's Inferno. The film stars Casey Afleck, the brother of Ben, and a fine actor in his own right, who has the native Bostonian accent quite naturally, and Ben has chosen to populate the film with numerous natives of Dorchester, where it is set, and that vicinity. Also playing prominent roles in the film are Michelle Monighan (the Sandra Bullock look-alike, only a better actress) and the remarkable Morgan Freeman and Ed Harris as Boston cops. Look for some Oscar nods for some their performances.
The film centers on a simply premise. A young child named Amanda has been kidnapped, and there is a massive search on to find her. Not satisfied by the police efforts 'Bea' (played by Amy Madigan who is almost unrecognizable), a extended family member of the child enlists the aid of Patrick (i.e. Casey) and his girl Friday as private detectives to see what they can uncover about the whereabouts of the child. Things already look bleak by the time Patrick enters the picture, but he takes the case, much to the chagrin of the police.
Patrick is a good Irish Catholic boy who not only wears the jewelry, he actually has had conversations about morality with his priest. Early on we hear the Gospel dictum 'lo I send you out as sheep amongst wolves, so be wise as serpents, and innocent of doves'. We are meant to read this tale through the lens of the Gospel, and particularly its ethical filter. Ah, but is even this ethic adequate for the seamy underbelly of Boston, where at best a rough justice may occasionally prevail, and at worse evil not mere lurks, it reigns. The tussle in this drama will be between situation ethics, the 'making the best out of a bad situation philosophy and choosing the lesser of two evils' and the absolutist, represented by Casey Afleck. And in a very powerful way indeed the question is raised-- who gets to decide what is the 'lesser of two evils' if you decide to slide down that slippery slope. This is a tale for our post-modern times where we hear not of truth, but of 'truthiness', not of sin, but of mistakes, and not of ethics, but bad choices.
In one compelling scene where Patrick is interrogating a cop named Remy (played by Harris), they talk about murder. 'Murder's wrong, plane and simply' says Patrick, to which Remy rejoinds 'depends on who you're killing'. 'No says Patrick, the priest says if it makes you feel shame its wrong, and it's always a sin, regardless'. But the world weary Remy wishes to justify himself, and so he disagrees, all the while confessing that he once planted evidence on a bad guy to get him sent to jail. Patrick does not approve of this sort of the ends justifies any means sort of approach to justice.
Later there is a further moral melodrama between Patrick and the then retired Boston captain Dobbs played by Freeman. Freeman is arguing that his actions, while illegal, were ethical because it was what was best for a particular child. Patrick explodes and asks, how in the world he could presume to know what was best for a child. What seems best to one, could in fact be completely immoral. Doubtless Hitler thought it was best to eliminate the Jews. It was the 'final solution'. Who gets to play God, when it comes to ethics. Patrick does not think we ought to be bending God's rules, and as you will see, it costs him.
I will not spoil the drama, and surprises of this film, but I will say this. This movie does a better job of raising the debate about ethics, especially when it comes to the life and welfare of an innocent child better than any film I have ever seen. It is worth wading through the sea of foul verbage to ponder the question again--- What is right and wrong? And who ought to decide such ethical issues? And what role do we want our representatives of 'Law and Order' to play in this morality play that is our lives, especially in major urban settings where drugs, and violence, and sexual immorality are an everyday way of life for so many.
I for one am thankful I saw this film. And Patrick is a character whom I will ponder long into the night.
Posted by Ben Witherington at 2:04 PM
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you'll find that Ben Affleck was Daredevil, not Superman.
Actually Duke, you are only half right. He played George Reeve who played Superman in the movie Hollywoodland, and he also played Daredevil, so this correction is unnecessary.
We didn't see him in that role down here in New Zealand.
Ben, I am in agreement with your assessment of this powerful film. When it comes to facing moral "ambiguity" this is one of the better films around. I posted my short review earlier in the week and am still pondering it.
Thanks for the recommendation! After reading your review this morning, my wife and I went to see the film this evening, and you were right on. I think the movie was even better after reading your take on it. Made for some good dinner conversation afterward.
I did not find Patrick to be an absolutist, but rather one who after a great sin realized a great truth.
When encountered with the collision of two proverbs, one must make a decision. Obviously, neither "Two wrongs don't make a right" nor "you have to break some eggs to make an omelet" solve anyone's moral dilemmas.
But Patrick comes to realize that evil cannot defeat evil. The harder right, the unglorious day-to-day goodness of caring for a desperate child, wins out over the easier wrong, the desperately heroic decision of the two main police characters. Remember why they made the decision they made? "Let's do one good thing before we get out," as if their careers up until that point were worthless. I thought, "Let us make a name for ourselves."
"Wise as serpents, and harmless as doves." Choosing the path of intentional self-sacrifice over the path of power and glory. Remembering the value of daily virtue.
These things matter, and they should be thought upon.
in HIS love,
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