The problem is that I had other plans for today’s column. I’m serious — there’s a spreadsheet of ideas and everything. Maybe I would write something deep and important about Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen, or deeper and important-er about Freaky Friday; perhaps I would write yet another thing about Erin Brockovich, except this time it would just be me, sitting alone in my apartment, transcribing the screenplay from memory, word for word. Recent installments of this column have been moody and frustrated, in a way that makes me uncomfortable. I need a break! I’d planned to mix it up, to write something fun again!
But then, last night, for no particular reason, I decided to watch Gone Baby Gone.
I can’t really explain what led to me to make this decision, other than I have been known to spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about — nay, fretting over — Ben Affleck. A part of me wanted to know if Gone Baby Gone held up. Another part of me wanted to know if writer-director Ben Affleck had snuck in a reference to The Departed in this movie, too. And so here I was: bored, sleepy, scrolling through Starz, pressing play on a movie about a city I very narrowly never escaped. (Boston. I am talking about Boston.)
The year is 2007. Casey Affleck is Patrick Kenzie, a private eye living and working in Dorchester; perma-Boston girlfriend Michelle Monaghan is Angie, his partner in life and work. When a young girl goes missing, her aunt hires the young couple to investigate the disappearance. Patrick and Angie uncover a series of domestic disasters: missing Amanda’s mom Helene (Amy Ryan) is addicted to various drugs, working as a mule on the weekends. Helene is estranged from her older brother and sister-in-law, even though they share a house. The family is struggling, but everyone seems to wordlessly agree Helene was never the mother she should’ve been — not because the girl’s room wasn’t decked out in toys, but because there’s barely any furniture or light in the child’s filthy room. Patrick and Angie get to work and go down a few dead ends, until they realize that Amanda’s disappearance might’ve been payback for Helene stealing $130,000 from a Haitian drug dealer nicknamed Cheese (Edi Gathegi).
Patrick is from the neighborhood; Amanda’s aunt hires him because he can talk to the locals who wouldn’t want to talk to the police. He has a vaguely illicit history that gives him a familiarity with some of the town’s players. Face-to-face with Cheese, we can see why Patrick is good at what he does. Until this scene, he’s been a good-hearted smart ass, offering observations that are clever, but not necessarily helpful. (“Fucking cops,” he mumbles, watching the media circus in Helene’s front yard, the day after Amanda is reported missing. “This is just unbelievable. The whole force standing outside the house, guarding the sidewalk with their arms crossed. I mean, are the kidnappers coming back?”) Opposite Cheese, he’s the classic Dennis Lehane hero, respectful but formidable, monologuing about what exactly he’ll do if the bad guy doesn’t give up the goods: “I’m gonna bribe cops to go after you, I’m gonna pay guys to go after your weak fuckin’ crew, and I’m gonna tell all the guys I know that you’re a C.I. and a rat, and I know a lot of people.” To quote another movie about fussy Irish gangsters: It’s what it is.
Except Cheese, sitting across from him, doesn’t seem all that menacing. He’s no scarier than anyone else in this movie carrying a gun. It sort of works, though, because aren’t we seeing what Patrick is reporting to us as truth, that Cheese is a mid-level local gangster, a guy he can turn a lot of people against, if push comes to shove? What’s not accounted for is how cartoonish
Gone Baby Gone renders this character — the way he’s a color-by-numbers dealer from The Wire. His only defining feature is that, amid all the throaty, phlegmy Boston elocution, his accent is Haitian.
But Cheese gets the movie’s best line. For reasons that become clear later, he’s taken aback by Patrick’s demands, and he’s insulted by the way Patrick assumes he had a hand in the girl’s kidnapping. He orders him to leave, and says, “And if that girl only hope is you, well I pray for her. Cuz she’s gone, baby. Gone.”
I know that, in a sense, this is deeply frustrating — how will our hero make sure little Amanda gets home! But, in a greater sense, it is truly so, so funny. Hearing someone say the title of the movie during the movie — ma’am! There are no words for how much it rules. It’s like you’re hearing something that maybe you’re not supposed to be listening to, something that doesn’t even feel real. And yet, there it is, someone, in their normal voice, saying the title of the movie, like they don’t know what the hell is going on here, like they don’t know that I’ve paid money to hear this exact story! The only thing I can compare it to is hearing Barack Obama swear, or hearing your mom talk shit about an aunt that you also don’t really like. It’s half-vindication, half-hat tip. (They know this is the money line, too!)
Lesser movies sneak the title in as a throwaway line, or maybe tucked into a long stretch of monologue. That is timid. Gone Baby Gone really goes there: When Cheese says this line, it’s punctuated with dramatic, theater-kid pregnant pauses. He knows he’s saying the title of the whole movie, maybe he even smiled to himself after, demanding his right-hand man jot it down, in case he wants to use it for a Medium essay, or something. “Cuz she’s gone, baby.” Pause pause pause pause, not yet not yet not yet, hold it in for just a minute longer, I know you can … “Gone.” Even the intimate flourish of him saying “baby;” it’s like, I hear you my guy, I get it.
A lot of these lines that play on a loop in my mind stick there because they are so weirdly specific and so perfectly inapplicable to real life: Who among us has had the opportunity to seriously tell another person that they best start believing in ghost stories; or that you shouldn’t be upset that I fucked her, you should be upset that I had a laugh with her! (If you have had reason to deliver these lines seriously, I invite you to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.) The Gone Baby Gone line isn’t like that; it can be applied to basically everything in my life, in exactly the same dramatic delivery. When I wake up to see that money has been automatically deducted from my bank account to pay the ConEd bill? That money is “gone, baby. Gone.” When my friend dropped his AirPod onto the subway tracks? It’s “gone, baby. Gone.” Adding just a little bit of water to the Aesop soap I splurged on just to make it last a little bit longer? Let her go. She’s “gone, baby. Gone.” My Rihanna-Leo tweets? I have decided to retire them, making them “gone, baby. Gone.” My brain worms? Here, baby. Here. But my last lick of common sense? “Gone, baby. Gone.”
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