Hollywood is a shitfight. It's quintessentially American. It's quintessentially Jewish. What would American culture look like without Jewish influence? Where does one begin and the other end? It's a question, sure.
Perhaps it's another continuum? If we put Seinfeld, The Royal Tannenbaums, Dexter and The Usual Suspects at one end, what might be at the other? How about Gone Baby Gone?
Why is crime so intrinsic to American culture? There's a thesis in that. Gone Baby Gone is part of the tradition - Raymond Chandler, James M Cain, and here Dennis LeHane. LeHane can't write like Chandler (say) but his heart is in the right place. So too it seems is Ben Affleck's, who has mercifully stepped behind the camera and astounds us all with with a very fine directorial debut. In front of the camera is his brother Casey Affleck, a far better actor. Having only previously seen frere Affleck in those light-as-a-feather Oceans flicks, here he's a revelation.
But never mind that. The treasure of this film is that it possesses a true moral dilemma. It's simple and it's complex. For the purpose of this blog, it's all I shall discuss.
A child is abducted. Enter Affleck and his winsome girlfriend as blue-collar private-eyes hired by the family to find her. From the beginning, these two are us. We learn as they learn. Sure enough, nothing is what it seems. Is the coke-slut mother guilty? The local low-rent drug lord? The uncle? The police?
Ambiguity reigns. Sure enough the director has to tread a fine line to avoid blowing the gag. But it's deftly done. We weave this way and that. Clues planted earlier come to fruit. All comes clear. Everything we've seen was an orchestrated sham. The girl wasn't so much abducted as rescued. It was all for her benefit. Those who committed the 'crime' were doing 'good'.
Finally we arrive at the crunch moment. The perfectly low-key Affleck faces down the perfectly low-key Morgan Freeman. Freeman has the girl. In cahoots with the uncle and two other cops he has 'adopted' her. Everyone in the loop did this out of concern for her.
Affleck confronts Freeman and says he's turning him in. Let's let Freeman do the talking - 'You know it doesn't matter what the rules say. When the lights go out and you ask yourself, "Is she better off here or better off there?" you know the answer. And you always will. You... you could do a right thing here. A good thing. Men live their whole lives without getting this chance. You walk away from it, you may not regret it when you get home. You may not regret it for a whole year, but when you get to where I am, I promise you, you will. I'll be dead. You'll be old. But she... she'll be dragging around a couple of tattered, damaged children of her own, and she'll be the one to tell them you're sorry.'
He's right of course. The girl is infinitely better off with Freeman than with her worthless mother. But Affleck astounds us with a slightly different take - 'You know what? Maybe that'll happen. I'll tell them I'm sorry and I'll live with it. But what's never gonna happen and what I'm not gonna do is have to apologise to a grown woman who comes to me and says, "I was kidnapped when I was a little girl, and my aunt hired you to find me. And you did, you found me with some strange family. But you broke your promise and you left me there. Why? Why didn't you bring me home? Because all the snacks and the outfits and the family trips don't matter. They stole me. It wasn't my family and you knew about it and you knew better and you did nothing." And maybe that grown woman will forgive me, but I'll never forgive myself.' Good stuff.
Finding the answer.
Simplistic moral commandments fail here. Under the law, everything that's taken place is illegal. But both men are rightly uninterested in quoting the law or basing their decisions on it. Affleck's use of it is merely remedial.
Is my continuum, at the top of the page, any use here? Of course, but we're there already. The conversation on both sides is already couched in terms of selflessness. There is now no shortcut or quick fix. We're in the messy middle ground and all that can be done is to puzzle out the optimum benefit for the girl.
Freeman's character does this by positing the future. But it's a false argument. The only certainty is change. Freeman imagines he knows how things will go. Sure, if you were a gambling man you'd lay odds he was right. That is until Affleck posits his other all-too-likely possibility. Perhaps that, perhaps this - who knows? Affleck has effectively trumped Freeman's argument. It's a stalemate and all things being equal the girl should stay with her mother.
The movie ends in fine hard-boiled style with Affleck wandering the streets alone, his girlfriend having dumped him for making the wrong choice. The last shot has him and the little girl vacantly watching TV, the uncaring mother on a bullshit date. Aargh! Was Freeman right? It certainly seems that Affleck is now doomed to a future of baby-sitting.
Exactly. Whether Director Affleck meant it or not, this scene represents the crucial truth in a discussion of selflessness. Had Freeman truly been acting out of a spirit of selflessness he'd have helped the mother. But between that unappealing prospect and having a sweetheart kid to cherish as his own he chose the latter. Well you would wouldn't you? Being selfish is so much easier. Affleck didn't choose his selflessness. It was thrust upon him. And his reward? Living a life other than he would wish it, ha ha. But never mind. I've already imagined the sequel. Scene one - Afflecks's winsome gal comes back.