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Crime Scenes

May 27, 2009

(It’s Wayback Wednesday! Today I dredged up three reviews I wrote for Shuffleboil, all of which are crime pictures of one stripe or another.)

Gone Baby Gone

Here are four words that inspire very little confidence when they appear on a movie screen: “Directed by Ben Affleck.”

Amiable lug Affleck has done his share to earn his reputation as a lightweight, from ill-advised projects (Gigli, anyone?) to high-profile tabloid romps with a string of starlets. In hopes of re-booting his career, he returns to his Boston roots with this downbeat neo-noir based on the novel by Dennis Lehane (Mystic River).

The director’s brother Casey Affleck stars as Lehane’s recurring protagonist, private eye Patrick Kenzie. Along with partner/lover Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan), Kenzie reluctantly takes on the case of a missing child. Four-year-old Amanda McCready vanished from her home while her no-account mother Helene (Amy Ryan) was drinking at a neighbor’s apartment. Kenzie and Gennaro are well-aware that the chances of finding Amanda get more remote by the hour – she’s surely either dead or a victim of horrific abuse from which she may never recover.

Amanda’s Aunt Beatrice (Amy Madigan) won’t take no for an answer, so the detecting duo delve into the seedy Dorchester neighborhood, where they uncover Helene’s ties to a local drug dealer who may have kidnapped the child. Their investigation is both aided and impeded by Boston police detectives Remy Broussard (Ed Harris) and Nick Poole (John Ashton), under the command of chief of police Jack Doyle (Morgan Freeman). The plot twists and turns through rough-and-tumble taverns, an abandoned quarry and a den of child molesters en route to the resolution of a moral dilemma that’s meant to leave viewers arguing as they shuffle out of the theater.

As a director, Affleck’s strength lies in the authenticity of the milieu; he has a Boston boy’s appreciation for neighborhood haunts and characters. The background (and sometimes the foreground) of Gone Baby Gone is populated by drinking class faces best viewed in dimly lit bars. He is able to coax believable accents out of non-locals like The Wire’s Ryan, who nails a very particular brand of abrasive, sarcastic street dialect.

Tonally, Affleck opts for low-key foreboding, in contrast to the often overwrought Mystic River and the heightened sensory overload of The Departed. His grasp of storytelling is a little shakier; Gone plays like it’s been edited down from a much longer film. Important supporting characters such as Kenzie’s arms dealer friend Bubba make fleeting appearances, and those who haven’t read the book may have trouble figuring out how all the threads connect.

The casting of scrawny, mumbling Casey Affleck as the detective hero may strike some as a perverse choice reminiscent of Elliott Gould’s turn as Philip Marlowe in The Long Goodbye, but there’s no similar payoff here. Affleck the younger is better suited to supporting roles, like his wormy turn in The Assassination of Jesse James. Monaghan lights up the screen in the otherwise regrettable Heartbreak Kid, but she’s a dour presence as Angie, a much more vivid character in Lehane’s novels.

Gone Baby Gone conjures an evocative atmosphere of melancholy, but the mood dissipates through the holes in the narrative.

No Country for Old Men

Joel and Ethan Coen might not be the first filmmakers you’d name as ideal vessels for bringing the work of Cormac McCarthy to the screen, but once you’ve let the idea marinate a while, it starts to make sense. Particularly if the McCarthy work in question is “No Country for Old Men,” which, having read this far, you already know it is.

The Coens are wiseguys and ironists; McCarthy is as serious as a heart attack. The Coens are irreverent genre-jumpers, mixing and matching film noir, slapstick comedy, period pastiche, regional humor and even the occasional musical number. McCarthy is known for violent westerns and stark Southern Gothics written in a distinctive prose style combining apocalyptic imagery with almost biblical language. So “No Country for Old Men” is something of a minor miracle: it’s the most faithful adaptation of McCarthy’s novel imaginable, yet it couldn’t be anything other than a Coen Brothers movie.

Or maybe it’s not such a miracle, once you discount the differences between these artists and start digging through the common ground. The book “No Country” begins as a more-or-less straightforward crime novel in the Jim Thompson mode, and as the movie opens, we might well be watching the natural – if long-delayed – follow-up to “Blood Simple.” Indeed, the initial shot of a lonely stretch of Texas road accompanied by world-weary narration from Tommy Lee Jones is almost certainly a deliberate echo of the Coens’ 1984 debut.

Jones is Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, a man who has seen it all and feels certain the worst is yet to come. The latest crime scene on his watch does little to dispel that notion: a desert drug deal gone awry, a pile of corpses and a missing satchel full of money. Bell was not the first on the scene; that would be Llewellyn Moss (Marlboro Man lookalike Josh Brolin), a hunter who happened upon the aftermath and made off with the cash. The drug cartel behind the botched transaction isn’t happy about this, so they hire a psycho in a Ramones haircut named Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) to find the money and bring it back.

Chigurh is a soft-spoken killing machine who dispatches his victims with a high-powered cattlegun, and in “No Country,” his victims are plentiful. He leaves a wasteland of death and destruction in his path as he closes in on Moss, and to complicate matters further, another hired killer (Woody Harrelson) is engaged to clean up after Chigurh.

Much of McCarthy’s story unfolds through the sort of sardonic, deadpan dialogue that’s always been right in the Coens’ wheelhouse. (“It’s a mess, ain’t it?” “If it ain’t, it’ll do ’til the mess gets here.”) The more action-oriented scenes are rendered with such an uncanny grasp of McCarthy’s evocative and precise geography, readers of the book may experience severe déjà vu. In particular, a climactic shootout in the border town of Eagle Pass left me half-convinced the Coens had access to some advanced technology allowing them to project the visuals straight out of my brain and onto the screen.

Bardem is a uniquely malevolent presence as Chigurh; his haircut alone should make him hard to take seriously, but he’s so quietly confident in his cracked worldview, he really does seem like the most dangerous man alive. There are several suspense sequences destined for the Coens greatest hits reel, notably an attack dog’s pursuit of Moss into the Rio Grande, and deadly game of ‘musical rooms’ at a rundown motel.

Fans of conventional thrillers will be thrown for a loop, however, as the movie enters its final reels. In fact, some may think one of those reels is missing; as in the book, perhaps the most critical plot development occurs off-screen, unheralded and barely explained. Action gives way to ambiguity, and any hopes of a concrete resolution dissolve into a series of meditations on the changing times, the meaning of America and the nature of evil. Some readers saw this as a deepening of the story’s themes, while others took the perhaps more uncharitable view that, in the end, the book disappeared up its own ass.

The Coens pull it off, though. Their work has always had a streak of existential rumination running through it, most notably in “Barton Fink” and “The Man Who Wasn’t There.” At times they’ve overreached, but here they simply let the mysteries of life and death and mankind’s unknowable capacity for evil to play out on Tommy Lee Jones’s craggy features and in the melancholy timbre of his voice. In its final lyrical moments, “No Country for Old Men” transcends genre and lays waste to any notion of the Coens as the sniggering egghead pranksters of cinema. If it’s not the movie of the year, it’ll do until the movie of the year gets here.

We Own the Night

Do you miss the gritty New York crime dramas of the ’70s? Long before Times Square was just another shopping mall, movie screens teemed with images of an urban inferno, all graffiti-coated subway trains and steam billowing from under manhole covers on grimy, crime-infested streets. Until Rudy Giuliani had all the muggers, hookers and squeegee men escorted to the city limits, it was up to hard-nosed, poorly dressed cops with Bronx honks and Brooklyn twangs to make the last stand for civilization as we knew it.

Writer/director James Gray clearly has an affinity for those pictures, and with Little Odessa, The Yards and now We Own the Night, he has positioned himself as the heir to the Lumets and Scorseses of that era. His latest effort is a period piece, although Gray himself seems a little confused as to exactly what period he’s dealing with. An opening graphic claims that it’s 1988, but the music used throughout the film dates to the early ’80s, and the hairstyles, clothing and décor are all inconclusive. It’s basically some nebulous movie New York populated by well-worn ethnic types: sweaty, gold chain-wearing clubgoers, puffy, dessert-pushing Russian mamas and granite-jawed brothers in blue.

Joaquin Phoenix is party-boy club manager Bobby Green. Green isn’t his real name; he’s changed it from Grunisky to distance himself from his father Burt (reliably gruff Robert Duvall), the chief of police, and his cop brother Joseph (Mark Wahlberg, doing his Departed character after anger management classes). Burt and Joseph don’t care much for Bobby’s lifestyle, and think the least he could do is help them infiltrate the Russian drug dealers who operate out of his club. Bobby would just as soon occupy his time snorting coke and shagging girlfriend Amanda (Eva Mendes). There’s a lot of talk about how “you’re either widdem or widdus,” but Bobby keeps his distance until a tragedy draws him back into the fold.

What transpires is an implausibly abrupt transformation in Bobby’s character, to say the least. Whatever Gray is trying to say about the moral struggle between the good life and the ties that bind, the point is ill-served by his eye-rolling plot developments. We Own the Night comes to life not in its tin-eared dialogue or heavy emoting, but in its suspense sequences: Bobby’s nerve-wracking infiltration of a drug warehouse, a tense manhunt through a Meadowlands marsh, and a visceral car chase through a blinding rainstorm. Whenever the action comes to a halt, Night slows to a brooding, somber crawl. It’s like The French Connection or Serpico played at half-speed.

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2 Comments
  1. there are very few talented actors that is as versatile as morgan freeman “‘-

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