Sunday, 6 July 2008

Shades of grey

Although I love cinema, I rarely (once so far; and for a film entitled Once!) write about what I see there. Basically, I find it hard enough to keep up with the relatively few books that I read without describing any of the many more films that I see. However, every now and then a film comes along that's worth writing about. Gone Baby Gone is one of them.

The film centres on a private investigator, Patrick Kenzie, who is drawn into a missing child investigation by the child's aunt and uncle. The crime has taken place in one of Boston's rougher suburbs and Kenzie, still a resident having grown up there, has the local knowledge that might find the child. Initially mistrusted by the investigating police officers, Kenzie's familiarity with the area pays off, and he and his partner (who is also his girlfriend) soon come to play a crucial role in the investigation. As they delve deeper into the events surrounding the child's abduction, the grim circumstances of the child's life become clearer.

Without going into detail about the film, it is fundamentally a morality play, firmly grounded within the crime genre. While the latter aspect is handled brilliantly and makes for an engaging film in of itself, the former is where the film is more successful and much more interesting.

From the moment that the child's mother is introduced, it's clear that the film-makers are trying to achieve something more significant than a police procedural. Given the circumstances, the mother is a character that one might expect to empathise with, but her portrayal here completely defies such an instinct. Succinctly described by one character as a "crack whore", she presents a series of problems to viewers expecting an easy ride.

But the film goes further still, presenting conflicting views of "Old Testament" justice, and climaxing with a brilliantly balanced moral dilemma. While the film has Kenzie ultimately "doing the right thing", at least in my judgement, another primary character makes the opposite judgement. And I would imagine that some viewers could quite easily take a different view to my own. In fact, examining my own instincts, I suspect that, confronted with the situation in the film, I might pragmatically make the opposite judgement to that I feel is right.

In passing, while viewers may feel that the Kenzie's decision sets the scene for future problems, in a coda to the main action, the film softens the future by suggesting that his continuing interest in the case, and in the consequences of his actions, may still lead to an ultimately positive outcome.

But, much like a large fraction of the film, this is only implied; just a shade of grey in a moral world far from black and white.

Postscript: I forgot to mention a further point about my reaction to the film. Some reviewers have drawn out the parallels with the earlier film, Mystic River, which shares the same source novelist, and the overlaps many of the same themes. Having seen both films, it'd be remiss of me not to say something about the intercomparison.

From a purely narrative point of view, Mystic River is slightly less satisfying, since it becomes clear long before the end that a tragedy is gradually working itself out. Fine if you like tragedy, but just gruelling if you're tired of the genre. By contrast, the outcome of Gone Baby Bone is far less clear, and though the plot appears to abruptly change direction at several points, it's really the working out of well-placed strands in the story.

For me, Mystic River has a major flaw in one of the closing scenes of the film, a flaw that greatly diminishes its power (especially because of its timing). The wife of one of the main characters, someone who has practically been part of the wallpaper until this point, suddenly transforms into a Lady Macbeth archetype, and delivers a powerful but completely misplaced speech that absolves her husband of his wrongdoing. My guess is that this was included because it is an important scene in the novel, but one which is gradually led up to through a carefully-crafted backstory. In isolation, it's as if someone has jump-cut in footage from another movie which just happens to share the same actors. Possibly a producer-error rather than one by the director, but with Clint Eastwood helming, it's likely that he got final cut.

Gone Baby Gone wins out any day here. While helped by a strong screenplay, Ben Affleck has done a sterling job directing his first full length feature film. Given that his acting career has been languishing of late, it's all the more impressive.

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