What Comes After Postmodern

Culture as an Evolutionary Force


Neoprimitive Film: Gone, Baby, Gone

Posted by Matilda on December 9, 2013 at 7:35 AM

I always believed it was the things you don't choose that makes you who you are. Your city.  Your neighborhood.  Your family.  People here take pride in these things.  Like it was something they'd accomplished.  The bodies around their souls.  The cities wrapped around those.

I lived on this block my whole life.  Most of these people have.  When your job is to find people who are missing, it helps to know where they started. I find the people who started in the cracks, and then fell through.  This city can be hard.

When I was young, I asked my priest how you could get to heaven and still protect yourself from all the evil in the world.  He told me what God said to his children.  "You are sheep among wolves, be wise as serpents yet innocent as doves."

—Opening lines from the transcript for Gone, Baby, Gone



   Gone, Baby, Gone (2007) is a crime drama directed by Ben Affleck that explores complex issues and offers no easy answers to the hard questions it raises.  What the film does do, more importantly and very effectively, is reveal themes that I would call neoprimitive.  Whatever you call them, these ideas are emerging in our culture with increasing frequency and force, and offer an appealing alternative to the starkly contrasting approaches of modernism and postmodernism.


   The film takes place in Boston's Dorchester neighborhood, a rough but tightly-knit community.  Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) and his partner/girlfriend Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan) grew up in Dorchester.  They still live and work there as private investigators when a young girl from the neighborhood is reported on the news as missing.  Patrick and Angie are hired by the family to investigate the disappearance and try to locate the missing child, Amanda McCready.


   As private investigators, Patrick and Angie work closely with the police captain (Morgan Freeman) who heads missing children investigations and his detectives who are assigned to the case.  The police tolerate their involvement as an unavoidable inconvenience but do not make it easy, and they disregard Angie's concerns about the way a ransom exchange is being set up.  In a meeting to discuss the plan, Angie asks the police captain an important question: "I'm asking if keeping it quiet is better for Amanda or is it better for us?"


   This question points to a theme that is increasingly being explored in contemporary culture, which is to question the role of the "hero/savior of others" that has come to dominate so much of our storytelling, and to bring to light hidden motivations behind acts of “heroic saving”.  In other words, is the heroic gesture really about the needs of the "victim" or more about the desires of the "hero", ego-based or otherwise?


   As it turns out, there is far more to the motivations of the police than meets the eye.  This becomes clear in a barroom scene where Patrick finds himself starring down the barrel of a gun held by a masked man, surrounded by bar patrons who are aghast and unarmed.  This is a classic film scenario: nothing new so far.  But what is new, and different in a meaningful way, is how Patrick reacts. He knows who the masked man is and immobilizes him by calling him out in front of everyone—by bringing his identity to light.  This is another key theme that is emerging in film and other creative works, which is to bring that which is hidden to the surface, and if it is dangerous, to extinguish its force by calling it out into the open—by revealing what is behind the mask for all to see. 


   Another hero/savior theme worth mention comes at the close of the film.  Patrick and Angie's relationship does not survive the investigation, as Patrick decides to take an action that Angie violently disagrees with.  Both make compelling arguments to justify their positions, and as with complex issues that influence the real lives of real people, it is hard to say who is "right".  But Patrick makes the decision he feels he must (as does Angie by  leaving him for it), and it forever changes his life and the life of the child in question as well. 

   Again, Patrick's reaction here is noteworthy—Instead of withdrawing and walking away at the end of the investigation, he offers to become involved in caring for the child on a routine basis, and in doing so takes personal responsibility for the outcome of his professional choice.  This is a notable change from the “professional hero/savior” who intervenes in the heat of a crisis but does not seem to entangle himself with more mundane responsibilities—instead moving onto to the next crisis where the hero can again intervene without long-term involvement—adopting a hard-boiled detachment to buffer the personal losses that come from such dedication to job and to principles, and to protect one's self from such painful introspections. 


   So, if we should no longer trust the typical hero/savior roles—regardless of which side of the equation we happen to fall on, i.e. are we in need of being saved or are we looking to do the saving?—then how should we conduct ourselves?  At what point is Intervention in another person’s life justified, and what if it is done without their permission?  Do the ends justify the means—if it is a cop planting evidence to get a guilty but elusive killer, or if someone decides that a mother is unfit to raise her own child?  What of the rights of her child to sufficient care, to some baseline amount of food, clothing, and attention?  Or to stay with the mother she knows and she loves in spite of such neglect?   


   Can anyone really save another person, especially without their permission?  Do the means inevitably influence the ends—does the inherent violence of an intervention queer its outcome?


   The personal and professional relationship between Patrick and Angie, and the way they conduct themselves in the world, provide some insight into these issues.  Patrick, who is likely in his 30s but looks much younger, seems like a puppy when compared to the hardened police detectives and gangsters he must deal with.  But he is very smart and ably demonstrates an ability to hold his own and push back when things get rough with any of them. 

   Patrick works as an equal with his partner/girlfriend and accepts that he cannot dominate her, letting Angie speak for herself and on her own terms.  Yet Patrick does not hesitate to protect and defend her when she is threatened by a seriously dangerous thug bartender and his barroom regulars.  And throughout the film, Patrick does not hesitate to defend himself, verbally and physically, from thugs from the streets or thugs with police badges.


   This all points to other neoprimitive themes, including that answers to questions about how to conduct one’s self in the world are contextualand also deeply personal.  No single approach should be applied exclusively and without abandon by all—and certainly not without taking into account where you are and who you are talking to.  

   These are important neoprimitive ideas: that it is possible and necessary for individuals to make value judgments and take a stand to back them up—but these decisions must be made both within the context of the moment and while taking the long-view into account.

   Another related neoprimtive theme is that one can and should defend oneself and others from aggression, which may involve the assertion of force, the redirection of the threatening force, a "diffusion" or "disintegration" of it through these or other means, and perhaps directing other "forces" at the threatening force, so as to disempower it.  It could be said that a neoprimitive-thinking person should be able, at times, to think like a liberal and act like a conservative--and there are real benefits to such an approach.

   Another important neoprimitive theme is that we should all work to discourage people from mistaking kindnesses for weaknesses, as these instances add up and can weigh heavily upon the soul.

   It is also worth mentioning that for both films he has directed and co-screenwritten—one, Baby, Gone (2007) and The Town (2010)—Affleck approaches the character of the drug-addled single mother, disrespected by herself and others, with compassion and insight while avoiding cliché and condensation.  Amy Ryan and Blake Lively put on considerable acting chops for these roles, providing honest and empathic portrayals that make it difficult to know if you mostly dislike them for their dysfunctions, which inevitably weigh heavily upon their children, or more strongly resent what has happened to them—the limitations of their circumstances, the stereotypes that confine them, and the absences and excesses that more than anything else seem to have defined their lives.


   Affleck's intimate familiarity with Boston has informed his work as a co-screenwriter for these films, as it has for his work on Good Will Hunting (1997).  All three films explore the how individual lives are influenced by local culture and personal circumstance, and the importance of the connections of these people to each other and to the places they live. 



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