The things we don’t choose

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The neighbourhood is the kind of place where ten-year-old boys on bicycles tell you to “fuck yourself and fuck your mother” when you ask them to move out of the road. Where the local tavern is frequented by a skeleton crew of thugs and broken-down old men at two o’clock in the afternoon. Where the mother of an abducted child — an event that has put her at the centre of a regional media frenzy — is a foul-mouthed, hard-faced, homophobic drug-addict.

This is south Boston, as envisioned by Ben Affleck — now a very capable director — in Gone Baby Gone (spoiler warning), a movie based on Dennis Lehane’s book of the same name. Over its opening scenes of weathered walk-ups with overweight and under-dressed local girls hanging around on ground-floor balconies, the film’s hero, a young private investigator named Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck), comments on the nature of identity: “I think that it’s the things we don’t choose that make us who we are. Our neighborhoods, our families…”

His thesis is borne out by element after plot element. When Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan), Kenzie’s girlfriend and professional partner, recognizes a friend of the missing girl’s mother as a former classmate, the woman instantly takes note of Angie’s clean hair and pressed clothing and snaps, “I see you’re still as conceited as ever.” Lionel McCready refers to his sister Helene’s alcoholism and drug addiction as an affliction rather than a sin: “She’s got the gene,” he says simply. And Kenzie, in his search for 4-year-old Amanda McCready, is able to draw on a network of childhood connections which give him trusted access to the criminal king-pins of his neighborhood. In Affleck’s and Lehane’s Boston — as in the Boston of Lehane’s earlier Mystic River, where cop, gangster, and suspect started as boyhood friends — your past follows you everywhere.

After a stop-start investigation in cooperation first with two Boston PD detectives (Ed Harris and John Ashton), and then with a local drug lord and long-time acquaintance, Kenzie finally discovers that the missing girl has been abducted by none other than the head of the police department’s missing-children division, Capt. Jack Doyle (Morgan Freeman), whose own child had been murdered years ago. In a near-final scene, Kenzie and Doyle confront each other at the captain’s country house, tensely debating whether Amanda should be returned to her mother.

Their debate is short but fascinating. The policeman argues from a vantage point of ends-justifying-the-means instrumentality. With a wastrel as a mother, Amanda probably would be doomed to a life of poverty and crime. Living with Doyle and his wife, by contrast, she has a chance to grow up loved and in prosperity. Doyle tells Kenzie that if he calls the state police, he’ll condemn himself to watching the child grow up in terrible circumstances, and will live to regret his decision.

Casey Affleck’s acting is powerful not because it is uncommonly subtle or dramatically expressive, but because it convincingly portrays the public face of a quiet and wary young man who has been conditioned since childhood to use bluff and bravado to ward off violence, and who knows that in the unforgiving world he inhabits, he cannot let down his cool-eyed persona for a moment. When faced with tremendous moral choices, therefore, his expression does not change — but he pauses, and as he does so we fill in the gap; we join him in his mind and desperately attempt to help him find the right answer. So when he finally does respond to the dilemma, we are relieved that he has found an acceptable articulation of at least a few of our own thoughts. Something had to be said, and he has managed to find something to say.

Yet what he actually says is surprising. Against Doyle’s extreme pragmatism, he doesn’t oppose high-minded concepts like the rule of law or universal ethics — this is not A Man for All Seasons — but relies instead on an equally emotional and equally valid pragmatism. Helene might never change, Kenzie admits, and he knows he might live to regret his decision. But he cannot face the possibility that Amanda might one day discover her roots, and might ask him why he knew that she had been abducted, taken by a strange family, and yet did nothing about it. His emphasis on the girl’s authentic origins is a casting back to Kenzie’s opening words about the things we don’t choose making us who we are. To him, Amanda McCready is from south Boston, born of Helene McCready. It might not be much of a birthright, but it’s hers. To abduct her was a grave sin, but to deprive her of her rightful identity would be theft of an equally terrible kind.

Ben Affleck has co-written and directed a thoughtful and often gripping movie about identity and origins. Yet it’s an interesting development for him: the last time he co-wrote a film set in south Boston, Good Will Hunting, he had his math-genius protagonist (Matt Damon) doggedly intending to stay forever in the old neighbourhood among the friends he grew up with, and having to be read the riot act by his best friend (played, ironically, by Ben Affleck) in order to get him to pursue a higher destiny elsewhere, anywhere — far away, at least, from south Boston.

3 thoughts on “The things we don’t choose

  1. Great review, Ian. It’s worth asking why South Boston has become the filmic hotspot for a certain type of moral drama: not just Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone but also The Departed. Aside from Lehane being responsible for two of the original storylines, it has something to do with the fact that Boston, rare among American cities now, still has old-fashioned ethnic enclaves (Irish and Italian neighborhoods). Also, perhaps, something to do with the way certain Boston institutions (the church, the police) have been scandal-ridden in the last decade).

  2. That’s an excellent question, Jeet. One answer may be that — precisely because of the ethnicity of the enclaves you mention — the location enables a film-maker to deal with issues of crime, poverty, group membership, and personal responsibility using white characters. This gives such issues, and the moral dilemmas they raise, a greater relevance to white middle class audiences, who thus cannot subliminally dismiss them as problems of the “black underclass”. An interesting early example of this, by the way, might be 1990’s State of Grace (also starring Ed Harris), about modern day Irish-American gangsters in NYC’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood.

    Of course, another answer may be that filmmakers are simply bored of using New York (in the 90s) and L.A. (in the 80s) as standard backdrops to tales of iniquity.

  3. Gone Baby Gone finally came to my video store. I watched it the other night. I hadn’t noticed the emphasis on unchosen roots, but after reading this, I see that it was definitely there. Nice post.

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