To be Right or Good – that is the question…
There’s so much pain in the world. Pain and suffering and crime and unfathomable acts of hatred. And yet, there is happiness somewhere as well. Fleeting even, but present. Hope for a better world – and a naive belief that one day it will all be brighter. And it is the duty of cinema to portray that nuanced contradiction amidst the mindlessness. To speak out to us – one story at a time – and attempt the monumental task of capturing it all. Of encapsulating the confusion of choice and of life.
Nope – this is not an emotional rant after I’ve had one too many to drink. Heck – most people don’t believe me, but the only happy things I consume are water and the looks of bewilderment on the faces of my innocent ‘victims of sarcasm’. It just so happens, that of the many brilliant works I’ve witnessed over the years – “Gone Baby Gone” still continues to stand apart in a league of its own. Because all I described in the first paragraph, – yeah… it’s all there in this movie.
And I’ll be damned if it doesn’t upset your moral standards when you’re done watching it.
Now the plot is simple – a child goes missing, is assumed to be kidnapped, and the protagonist and his girlfriend are hired to find her cause they’re badass detectives. Because you know – protagonists have to be badass regardless of their profession. Even if they are taxi drivers. So – I bet you’re thinking “errr… doesn’t the story sound an awful lot like someone watched ‘Taken’ and ‘Baby’s Day Out’ and thought it would be good idea to do something along the lines of ‘Baby is Taken Out’ – and then realised that it would be the dumbest name ever thought up, so went with something even more juvenile – namely ‘Gone Baby Gone’?” (It’s a long sentence – non literature majors might want to re-read it.)
But nah. This movie aint like that because it is directed by a man called Ben Affleck. Yeah, the dude who’s been getting the raw deal in DC’s recent slate of movies, affectionately titled “Marvel-lous exploits in stupidity”. And yet, the puppeteering hand of Ben Affleck manages to string together something extraordinarily unexpected.
Because you see, there is an unmistakable edge you possess over the others when you are a director that has acted as well.
That advantage gets multiplied many times over when you add ‘writer’ to the resume. And “Gone Baby Gone” is undoubtedly a testament to this ability. Now while the original novel was written by Dennis Lehane, who is the brain behind this emotional, yet unflinchingly authentic Boston kidnapping story, it is Ben Affleck that manages to set the perfect tone, never shying away from strong local accents and unhindered abusive language to depict local Boston like never before. And yet, despite it being impossible to give enough credit to the director for this hard hitting film, I must conclude that it was his brother Casey Affleck and Oscar nominee Amy Ryan that really made it click in the end. The badass detective I was talking about earlier, Casey is one of them.
Now, for the people who think making a wall along the Mexican border is as easy as getting misunderstood by your mom, I must warn you that this errr… review/analysis/essay might lead to inadvertently spoiling things for you. So – if you’re really picky about going in to watch it without a clue – this is where you should stop. (Or maybe you should build that hypothetical wall you were droning on about to stop yourself.)
Because once you step past the brilliance of the direction – and the acting – and the soundtrack and the basic plot itself – the movie presents the viewer with perplexing moral problems of frankly majestic proportions.
And this is where the movie starts to really prick a little – slowly clawing at your insides and asking the kind of questions that eventually lead to what is now known as an “existential crisis”.
Yup – everything I’ve spoken about yet was merely the icing on the cake. The cake itself is baked in philosophy with a rather meaty dose of morality and ethics shoved into the mix. Everything ranging from Kant’s “Categorical Imperative” to “Utilitarianism” is touched upon in this movie (Ignore the last line if you’ve never heard of “Kant” or “Google” and always believed your life could be summarised in a profound lyric from a Pitbull song).
“Is duty above morality?”
“Is there anything that is inherently ‘right’ and ‘wrong’?”
“Is it worth breaking an oath for the better good?”
“Are we truly evil if our good intentions lead to reasonably predictable bad outcomes?”
And the list goes on and on – each question more baffling than the other. We are shown the good side of characters who you know are evil. We root for the protagonist only to realise that the real antagonist was the agony that was not to arrive in the form of gunfights, but rather from the burning questions within. We see victims of circumstance teetering on the edge of our empathy – reaching out for help with a battered arm only to slap our hand away when we reach back to help. And above it all – we see how we are always one frustrating step away from passing decisive judgements about human beings. And what ultimately kills us, after all the trauma the film puts us through – is the slightest possibility that we may actually be right in choosing the wrong.
It’s like calling everyone around me stupid, and being afraid I’m right even while I’m aware it’s wrong to think I’m the best.
We all choose our own paths, and like our pets, think that they will bring us happiness. Only to realise that those paths in turn have a mind of their own, and choose as well. Some call it fate – others blame luck – and all the while, you’ll never really know what your pet is thinking. Until the dog bites you in the face or jumps in the sea to rescue you from drowning.
This movie is in essence the definition of the biggest burden all humans are forced to live with – Choice.
Casey Affleck plays a strong, determined dude who’s full to the brim with a sense of duty and honour. The victim’s mother on the other hand, who was nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award, plays an emotional wreck with an unbelievable level of conviction. And her strong performance ensures we get glimpses of her shame and love through the very cracks that make her appear ugly on the outside. Then the contrasting characters get even more interesting, with the victim’s aunt seeming even more concerned about the victim than the mother. The rest of the characters in the movie complete the circus by playing everyone else to create a startlingly realistic, albeit typical scenario. The neighbours always want a good story to pass the time. The news always sensationalises. The cops are always either completely corrupt or idealistically good. And I am always making generalising sweeping stereotypical statements. Like the one I just made.
This movie leads to heartbreak – then move on to teary eyed reunion – and then yank you back down into the depths of human depravity and self-righteous consciousness, over and over again.
And just when the credits start rolling and you’re glad it’s finally over, the questions the movie leaves you with begin to haunt the aftermath. You want to be the protagonist, and do what’s right – but you’ve learnt that life isn’t that straightforward. You want to do what is ethical over what is logically just, only to be stopped dead when you see where that path takes you. There are compulsive paedophiles, and murderous drug addicts and conniving cops all vying for their superiority, each correct in their own twisted subjective way.
To summarise the film, the protagonist thinks out loud, right in the beginning. “I always believed it was the things you don’t choose that makes you who you are. People here take pride in these things, like it was something they’d accomplished.”
And that – that is where it all begins. Always at that exact moment of undeserved pride. Until you wake up one day, after a bad dream, and ask yourself where all the certainties you had in life were? And a soft voice in your head replies, with a sullen face, full of dejection and decay –
“it’s gone… – Gone.”
And it aint ever coming back. And most certainly not after watching this movie.