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Posted on 12/17/09 01:47 PM
When you're a novice director, it helps to have an ex-studio honcho help you. Co-producer Alan Ladd.Jr had variously headed up Fox, MGM/UA, and his own The Ladd Company. However, a film still needs a strong screenplay......and the rest. GBG(2007) delivers all that at virtually stratospheric gravitas level.
Ben Affleck maintains a surprising pace in his directorial debut because he is both brave, and has a lot to tell. And maybe it's Ladd's influence, but GBG shows true "vision": the film's style of telling suits its subject-matter, and it poses its clever ideas audience-inclusively, without sugar-hit/adrenalin/overly emotive score manipulations. Giving people exactly (and only) what they want is pandering; whereas offering them only a brand of antisocial insanity is unworthy of distribution.
Affleck certainly does not pander to anyone here. That was unlikely, since the Affleck brothers (as well as the original author) are all smart "Southies" from Boston's working-class Dorchester, where GBG is set. Every big city has areas like this, the underbelly of normal society. The director was certainly "writing what he knew" when he co-adapted the fourth of Dennis Lehane's pentology of private investigator novels with Aaron Stockard.
The opening documentary montage imperceptibly blends fictional scenes on the street, thanks to a deft directorial hand. Patrick Kenzie's morose narration sets a sombre tone of survival in this harsh world of scarred people; the real montage had revealed a shocking number of wheelchair-bound, accident-prone gunshot victims.
The younger Affleck (Oceans' 11-13) is a revelation as the "31yr-old" PI, business-partnered with his live-in girlfriend Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan, Eagle Eye(2008)). Their relationship seems confusing until you realize that despite inexperience with serious missing persons cases, they're actually great at finding people desperate to disappear. So.....just like that, the writers turned their "liability" into advantage.
Kenzie's droning about the farcical police presence at the missing toddler's home cleverly draws us into his professional skepticism. Surprisingly, the police captain himself heads up the search. Capt.Doyle (the deeply trustworthy Morgan Freeman) dutifully promises police co-operation to these competing PIs by way of his detective Remy Bressant (Ed Harris).
The plot races ahead, in keeping with the speed of recovery being of essence in kidnapping cases. Clever Kenzie misses nothing during his investigation of local barflies, or Bressant. Within 3days the case unfolds to a shocking apparent result, but no body is found, despite Angie actually flinging herself into a quarryful of water to save the little girl. Yet we never appreciate Angie's true desperation, because it implies the deeper story, so Angie's scenes were dropped, unbalancing the PI duo. The editing doesn't permit the audience to get the story through Angie--we simply don't identify with her strongly enough!
However the real shock is that Amanda's mother Helene (Oscar-nominated Amy Ryan) is extremely "working-class", and is probably causally involved--as the intended target. We discover that there are many things Dorchester locals fail to tell police, since they themselves are the usual suspects of many a local crime. Even the local bartender packs a shotgun he's never afraid to use.
GBG is almost flawless: the pacing, perspective, casting, relatability and exposition, accents, milieu, as well as the plot--are all astonishing, retaining that mystical quality of "life imitating art". My only reservation concerns Affleck's willingness to mire his audiences at the nighttime quarry: the scene simply wasn't staged well enough to properly hint the plot. The need to confuse us overwhelmed the young director, who now needs reminding that taking his audience out of the movie is NOT THE SAME as having them give up hope for the kidnap victim!
Ultimately the scene was much too unlit and haphazard, forcing us to catch sight of Angie too late for our emotional involvement. As McTiernan admitted about his similar-case Russian cook in Hunt_for_Red_October(1990), the "seeding was frail", making Angie's dealbreaker fight afterwards with Patrick under-appreciated by the audience. Audiences should've kept emotional pace with Angie, our co-protagonist, or else why have her?
Nevertheless, Ben Affleck must be commended for his courageous choice of stalling the plot halfway. Of course, this occurs in Lehane's book, too, but Affleck is so confident that he has the film's second half return to Patrick's morose narration--to lull the audience into a false ignorance. We return to the "same" insoluble despondency of Dorchester denizens venomously hating anyone seemingly better off. The prime example of this is Dottie (the completely untrained Dorchesterite Jill Quigg), as Helene's foul-mouthed best friend. Dottie spits in expletives at everyone who disagrees with her, and accuses Angie--because the PI isn't an addict--of being "conceited".
When the case re-ignites in a different direction, Patrick can't resist walking alone into the home of a suspected paedophile. What happens next makes us question who, if anyone, should be permitted to carry a gun. Suddenly the young PI becomes a hero to police, yet some revelations don't add up. Kenzie, ever-vigilant, drags his employer, little Amanda's uncle Lionel (Titus Welliver, he of the handlebar moustache), into the infamous pub for a confession.
Lionel's revelations constitute Lehane at his best, as the avuncular alcoholic finally falls off the wagon. His dialogue just gets more powerful the longer Lionel talks, since the plot now raises the dilemma of "mothercare" within harsh communities, when the mother is herself a product of generational poverty/neglect. The resultant mentality being a key feature, such fiercely insular locals often aren't even aware that they're "the underclass".
What should--let alone can--child services do, stretched beyond limit as they are? Rabbit-proof Fence(2002) powerfully represented Australia's sad history; GBG(2007) now augments this by reminding us of moral consequences even WHEN we're "wise as serpents yet innocent as doves".
Based on actual "Stolen-" and "forgotten generations" political experience Down Under, solutions are likely to involve "Find My Family"(2008 TV series documentary)-like reconciliations. Whatever advantages "taken" pasts might afford survivors, they're often undone by the lifelong pain of dislocation and perceived rejection. Victims can expend entire lives uncovering the secrets of other people's good intentions.
So it's breathtaking for a first-time director to tackle such a deep, structurally unusual film yet still get both story and execution close to perfect. GBG's vision and style, cultural authenticity and devastating perspective make it far more deserving than the one Oscar nomination it failed to win. We are indebted to all three amazing writers; together they satisfyingly ask all the right questions, and permit action to galvanize the morose reality.
Their gutsy movie pulls no punches depicting the story's final moral inertia, either. A lesser film might not have known how to finish, but GBG's ending was always anchored by the reveal of culture remaining more-or-less the same. Despite the family upheaval, little Amanda still loses. The film's deepest indictment of "underbelly mothercare" is represented by Helene's neglectful ignorance of her daughter's doll's name. Throughout the whole movie we "know" it as Mirabelle from news reports, until the toddler corrects her stunned babysitter in the very last scene. Such rare authenticity in the writing was due no doubt to Lehane's previous years as a counsellor to abused children.
Everyone is superbly cast, but John Ashton ("Taggart" from Beverly Hills Cop(1984)) manages to steal the show for simply not aging is 20yrs!
.....The unexplained lack of Oscars still bothers me. Perhaps GBG?s audiences (and critics) became uncomfortable stuck in their moral muddle, plus angry over being deliberately mired by the director, but other than its "obfuscation scene", GBG is pretty flawless. Thank you, Affleck brothers, Alan Ladd.Jr, Lehane and Stockard, and thank you Dorchester.(9/10).