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Review: “Gone Baby Gone” (2007)

Private investigator Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) finds people “who started in the cracks and fell through.” That’s not difficult to do because he identifies with such people; in fact, he might have been one of them, since he grew up in Dorchester, the same tough Boston neighborhood his clients come from. Chance, maybe a few bad mistakes — that’s all that separates Patrick from the people he gets paid to find. He’s no better or worse than them, and while he uses his position to make him a better detective he doesn’t fancy himself a savior for Boston’s downtrodden. Patrick has one interest: doing right by his clients. But the more he sees, the less able he is to feel out the boundaries of “right” and “wrong.”

Bless first-time director Ben Affleck for steering Patrick Kenzie into this world of moral grayness and not one of polarizing moral absolutes. The last thing a sharp, haunting film like “Gone Baby Gone” — based on Dennis Lehane’s fourth book in the Kenzie-Gennaro series — needs is a self-righteous hero with a gun in one hand and a soap box in the other. In the underbelly of Boston, where people know more than they want about each other and won’t tell any of it to the cops, only a quick thinker like Patrick will work. Casey Affleck plays him as low-key, occasionally glib, but he’s not heartless, just a man with a moral code that’s not fully formed yet. That code gets tested by the case he and his parter Angie (Michelle Monaghan) take on involving four-year-old Amanda McCready (Madeline O’Brien), who has vanished from her mother Helene’s (Amy Ryan, stellar beyond words) apartment. All signs point to a kidnapping, since Helene’s a drug mule for local kingpin Cheese (Edi Gathegi) with a lot of enemies. Amanda’s aunt and uncle (Amy Madigan, Titus Welliver) believe Patrick can augment the police investigation because he knows Boston’s bottom rungs. Their relationship with Helene, who does things like take her daughter along on drug runs, is rocky.

The case takes Patrick and Angie further into the city’s underbelly than they expected. As their search deepens and they become emotionally involved, Ben Affleck keeps the action tight, the twists rapid and the characters intricate. His shots, too, of Dorchester’s seedy bars, empty warehouses and addicts provide a fitting backdrop and a sense of grime and forboding that’s hard to shake. The investigators butt heads with Boston PD Capt. Jack Doyle (Morgan Freeman, unassuming and devastating as always) and detectives Remy Bressant (Ed Harris) and Nick Poole (John Ashton) and get mixed up with the local criminal element, including Helene. Everyone, really, has ulterior motives — some honorable, some selfish — that cloud the water. What’s compelling about “Gone Baby Gone” is the way the film gets at these motives very carefully. Even though in movies like this one, with its neo-noir leanings, we’ve come expect the unexpected, the surprises are still genuine, the consequences unforseen. Most unwilling to accept the not knowing is Patrick, whom Casey Affleck plays with an understated but fiery determination.

Probing the “actions have unpredictable consequences” angle is one thing Ben Affleck does well in his first feature film. “Gone Baby Gone” is a remarkably assured, even-handed look at both sides of some heavy issues with no sides or stances are taken. Amanda, if found, surely seems like she’d thrive with her aunt and uncle as her guardians. But Helene is her biological mother, and though she’s an addict there’s always the possibility she could clean up, become a better mother. Although Angie and Bea (Madigan) and Remy see nothing in Helene but wasted oxygen, Patrick can’t deny that the woman, underneath all the beer and drugs and foul language, honestly cares about her child, knows she made some colossal mistakes and wants another chance. Ryan, so deserving of her Oscar nomination, gives so much to Helene, finds damage and bitterness and also vulnerability, contrition. What Patrick sees in her prompts him to venture down Frost’s “road less traveled by.” His choice makes all the difference, and “Gone Baby Gone” lets us see how sometimes the aftermath of a perceived right choice can be very, very damning.

Grade: A

Review: “Lonesome Jim” (2005)

Lonesome_JimEntitlement, sad sackery and ennui seem to be the defining characteristics of that spiritual dead zone that exists between ages 25 and 30 these days. Consider Jim (Casey Affleck) the perfect spokesman for his people. A self-proclaimed creative type/writer who never manages to be creative or write anything, the 27-year-old shuffles home to Indiana after discovering Random House does not hand you a publishing contract the day you arrive in the Big Apple. So Jim finds himself back at home with Mom (Mary Kay Place) and Dad (Seymour Casesl) possessed of no will to live but less desire to pull the “goodbye, cruel world” card.

Right about now, “Lonesome Jim” is starting to sound like a grim, tedious, moody affair. And, truth be told, that’s sort of what it is for about 70 minutes. But there’s one excellent reason to stick around, and his name is Steve Buscemi. (Tempted as I am to repeat my Steve Buscemi rule, I will abstain.) As an actor, he’s got a talent for finding quirks that make his characters memorable. When he’s directing, he uses the camera to find those idiosyncracies, insightful lines and quiet moments. Buscemi doesn’t rush his actors or his movie, so things unfold without much fanfare. The slow pacing isn’t for everyone, but “Lonesome Jim” rewards anyone patient enough to look closer with a laconic but affecting character study.

The character in question, Jim, is tailor-made for Casey Affleck, a budding actor who deserves no comparison to his more famous brother. Much like Buscemi, he underacts religiously, almost to the point of seeming catatonic. Which, you see, is the point — Jim is no fun to be around. He believes he’s a writer, but he barely tries and still seems put off by his lack of success. (Apparently he missed that whole “you miss 90 percent of the shots you don’t take” movement.) Jim even manages to see himself as superior to his family, particularly his divorced brother Tim (Kevin Corrigan), whom he calls a “goddamn tragedy,” and his manic-or-just-really-cheerful? mother, whose $20 bills he lifts from her purse. Even meeting Anika (Liv Tyler), a kind-hearted single mother who seems to like him, doesn’t seem to affect him that much. Anything less than abject misery is unthinkable to him. Somehow, though, he starts to change so gradually it’s almost invisible.

And here’s where the infamous Buscemi touch comes in. He makes Jim’s move from mournful lump to human being subtle but blackly funny. This guy needs outside forces to help him grow, and Buscemi gives him a whole mess of odd personalities who facilitate this change. Anika, of course, is key. When Jim’s relationship with her starts to grow a pulse, he asks her: “There’s so many fun and cheery people in the world. Don’t you think you’d be better off with one of them?” That she’s influenced him to ask himself that question is progress, a move from self-absorption to self-awareness. Tyler plays Anika not as a doormat but as a helper who sees potential in Jim.

Other characters make “Lonesome Jim” an insightful little movie. Take Jim’s mom Sally (Place, always wonderful), whose cheerful front belies her own unhappiness. Note her weary reaction to Jim’s decision to move to New Orleans — her line delivery is note-perfect. As Jim’s drug-dealing uncle “Evil,” Mark Boone Jr. serves up most of the film’s humor, the best being his conviction that hookers are cheaper than girlfriends. He tries to get Jim to loosen up, but mainly he sets events in motion that force the slacker to wake the hell up. Affleck, mop-topped and sporting perpetual facial scruff, gives us small glimpses into these changes. He’s all about facial expressions, and here they are so illusive as to rival Zach Braff’s in “Garden State.” Jim’s not the same guy in the end that he was in the beginning, and Affleck’s transition is practically seamless.

And speaking of the end: It will enrage some but enlighten others. Simple, ephemeral and barely hopeful (or is it?) — it’s classic Buscemi. He pares “Lonesome Jim” to the bone, and that’s why it leaves a lasting impression.

Grade: B