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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

Ploddingly paced “Appaloosa” disappointing

appaloosa

Ed Harris, Renee Zellwegger, Viggo Mortensen and Jeremy Irons star in slow-moving "Appaloosa."

A gruff, gun-toting lawman, a dependable, wise-cracking sidekick, a bustier-sporting temptress, a sinister villain, a bloody third-act showdown — indeed, it appears that Ed Harris’ “Appaloosa” has all the elements of a solid (if unimaginative) Western.

The problem? None of these things matter if you’re not awake to appreciate them.

Alas, such is the case with “Appaloosa,” a Western front-loaded with A-list talent (where else can you find Ed Harris, Viggo Mortensen AND Jeremy Irons in one reel?) that suffers from poor editing and even worse pacing. There’s gunfights aplenty, for sure, but they’re buried underneath piles and piles (and piles) of dialogue that’s a little too “witty” (many lines, taken straight from Robert B. Parker’s book, don’t survive the book-to-film translation) and characters that seem a little too flat to create any sort of emotional impact.

The storyline, which remains fairly faithful to Parker’s book, unfolds as many typical Westerns do: Tightlipped patrol-man-of-sorts Virgil Cole (Harris) and his more articulate partner Everett Hitch (Mortensen) travel the West working as “justice slingers,” offering to clear out any riff-raff in exchange for money. The pair stumbles upon Appaloosa, a town held firmly in the fearful grasp of Randall Bragg (Irons), a trigger-happy rancher with no livestock but a nefarious posse of outlaws. The entrance of Allison French (a horribly, dreadfully miscast Renee Zellwegger), an impeccably wardrobed organist with flexible morals and unusually hued hair, complicates Cole and Hitch’s plan to kill Bragg and restore order to Appaloosa and its beleaguered residents.

Here is a plot that’s rife with possibilities. (Consider: “Unforgiven” did much more with much less.) Yet somehow Harris — who, perhaps, should stick to acting, not directing — never manages to make these elements flow or achieve any sort of balance. For starters, the choppy editing makes for jarring, staccato, unpleasant transitions that make “Appaloosa” seem like a series of scenes strung together, not a finished movie. Then there’s the pacing. It’s slow, so slow at times that it’s almost like the film nearly flatlines … only to be paddle-shocked back to life with a gunfight or a beating or some nudity. Editing and pacing may be small parts of a movie, but here they’re bad enough to affect the quality of the movie.

Lucky for viewers, a few performances do keep “Appaloosa” from sinking too far. Harris can glower and squint and mutter with the best of them, and he delivers too-self-consciously-pithy one-liners with aplomb. (It’s fair to say, though, he’s got nothing on Tommy Lee Jones’ Sheriff Ed Tom Bell.) But he shrinks too small, retreats too far inward; we learn too little about Cole to understand his choices, root for him, or care much about him at all. Mortensen, who steals scenes from Harris at every turn, registers rather impressively as Hitch, a would-be philosopher who happens to wield a mean eight-gauge shotgun. He quietly supports Cole, defending his choices and spurning the unwanted advances of Allison — a woman who, as poorly played by Zellwegger, is equal parts simpering wet rag and raging nymphomaniac. (Did I mention that Zellwegger is terrible? It bears repeating.) Irons clocks in at a close second to Mortensen with his wily, slick turn as Bragg, who outwits Cole but can’t teach his men to outshoot him.

Yet great performances cannot a movie save. How so? One word: editing. Anyone who needs a class in it should look to “Appaloosa” as a “don’t do this” example.

Grade: C