Let’s start this blog entry with a subject very near and dear to my heart. I’m of course referring to my hometown and my first love, the city of Portland, Oregon.
As I’m sure I’ve mentioned in one or two prior blog entries, the Rose City is going through something of a media revival right now. This August, for example, will see the release of ParaNorman, an awesome-looking Claymation picture made by Portland’s own Laika as a follow-up to their Oscar-nominated Coraline. Meanwhile, there’s a little show called “Grimm” that just keeps getting better and better in its use of Portland landmarks and local culture. Additionally, the show continues to pull in solid ratings (for a Friday evening timeslot), which is icing on the cake.
“Grimm,” ParaNorman, and Coraline are all media treasures to the city of Portland, and my people have many reasons to be proud of them all. That said, I doubt that one Portlander in 100 has ever heard of Laika, and I’ve yet to overhear anyone on the MAX talking about Siegbarste or Blutbaden. Yet all I have to do is say “Put a bird on it,” and everyone in earshot starts cracking up instantly.
“Portlandia” has reached such a staggering degree of popularity here that Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein could probably be elected mayor. Despite having only two seasons, every single one of its 14 episodes (to date) is practically considered mandatory viewing for Portlanders. I suspect that a key reason for the show’s local success is because it so accurately depicts how we see our city and how we want others to see it. The show is bright, energetic, funny, and quirky. It’s all about creativity and humor, with the beloved mantra “Keep Portland Weird” as its holy scripture.
So here’s Gone, a movie that resides on the total opposite end of the spectrum; for even though it’s set and shot in Portland, the film is so dull and uninspired that it could easily have taken place anywhere else.
Actually, no, that’s not really fair. What I mean to say is that this movie could just as easily have taken place in any other city with immediate access to huge tracts of forest. See, the story concerns Jill Conway (Amanda Seyfried), who was recently kidnapped by some unknown man and tied up at the bottom of a hole somewhere in Forest Park, just outside Portland (No, that’s not crappy screenwriting. “Forest Park” be an uninspired name, but it really does exist.). Anyway, Jill somehow managed to escape captivity and flee to safety, except that the police never found the alleged hole or any sign that the kidnapping had taken place at all. Then they found out about Jill’s history of mental illness, and they had her committed.
Flash forward about half a year. Jill is now living with her sister — Molly, played by Emily Wickersham — and showing clear signs of PTSD. She’s extremely paranoid, and everyone knows it. So, when Molly turns up missing, everyone naturally assumes that Jill’s just gone off her meds. So Jill goes looking for her sister and her kidnapper while the Portland Police go looking for the (possibly) crazy lady.
In all fairness, I should concede that the initial premise is more complicated than I’m making it out to be. For starters, there were no signs of forced entry, the alleged culprit’s MO is slightly different than it was when Jill was taken, and Molly is known to be a recovering alcoholic. On the other hand, Molly was studying for an extremely important test that she didn’t show up to take, and not all of her belongings are accounted for. At first, there’s a surprising amount of checks and balances to maintain the question of whether or not Molly’s disappearance is a serious problem.
Unfortunately, this tension disappears far too quickly for the movie’s own good. Later on, for example, we see Jill decide to forgo her medication. In any decent movie, this would be a set-up to something truly freaky. At some point afterward, her ability to tell reality from imagination should have been called even further into question. And yet, that doesn’t happen. Ever.
From start to finish, the screenplay is abysmal. First of all, the dialogue is terrible, and most of the characters are practically cardboard cutouts. Amanda Seyfried is clearly putting in her best effort, and we get some surprisingly decent performances out of Daniel Sunjata and Jennifer Carpenter, but most of the actors are left drowning and all of them are woefully incapable of elevating this material. Wes Bentley is probably the worst of the bunch, since his dialogue and performance might as well be screaming out “I’m evil!” The movie makes him so obviously suspicious so early on, that he has to either be the culprit or a red herring.
Secondly, there are the plot holes. To pick out a spoiler-free example, Jill has a loaded .38 that she carries concealed. Yes, Jill has a gun. I’ll remind you that she has a recent history of mental illness, which means that she isn’t legally allowed to purchase or to own a firearm. In fact, Sunjata’s character — a police sergeant — is good enough to call attention to this plot hole by reminding Jill of the fact. Would you like to know how and when she managed to get this particular gun? Well, so would I.
Thirdly, and most importantly of all, the entire plot is predicated on the fact that in this movie, the Portland PD is staffed entirely with stone-cold idiots. If they paid Jill even the slightest amount of credence or had the good sense to do their due fucking diligence, this movie would’ve been over in twenty minutes. They could easily have picked up the phone and asked the university if Molly was there, or they might have sent a couple of detectives to ask if the neighbors had noticed anything strange that night. But no, they instead devote every single officer in the city toward finding one young woman with a gun. Wow.
Oh, and then we have a couple of scenes in which we meet a couple of uniformed officers on patrol together. One of them just got engaged to his girlfriend while banging her sister on the side. The other is quoted as saying “The first time a man beats his wife, she’s a victim. The second time, she’s a participant.” Portland’s Finest, ladies and gents.
As for the action and the suspense, don’t make me laugh. The film does have some car chases, but they’re extremely boring. As for the tension, I’ll only say this: The movie utilizes a cat jump scare. Jill opens a closet, and a cat jumps out of it. Complete with the stock “cat screech.” This was actually an attempt at horror in a 2012 movie, I swear to Christ.
But of course, this is a suspense thriller. And suspense thriller movies ultimately live or die on their climaxes. And this movie fails hard. Without spoiling anything, this movie doesn’t have the creativity or the intellect to throw any surprise twists at us, and it sure as hell doesn’t have the guts to do anything that might elicit a strong emotional response. So, if you go through this movie expecting to find any huge last-minute revelations, you’re going to be sorely disappointed.
Ultimately, there are really only two options as to how this movie’s going to end, and they both suck.
1. The abductions was purely imaginary. This would mean that Molly’s disappearance and Jill’s entire investigation makes absolutely no goddamn sense. In the interest of avoiding spoilers, I’ll let it go at that.
2. The abductions are real. This would mean a whole bunch of other plot holes, not the least of which being that the Portland police missed the clear and obvious signs of physical struggle left from Jill’s initial kidnapping, which would take this movie from an “idiot plot” to a “retard plot.” After all, it would mean that the police let a kidnapper go free, sent Jill to a mental institution, gave the kidnapper a head start on the second abduction, and then spent all their manpower and taxpayer dollars on chasing a woman who wasn’t actually a lunatic, all because they were too stupid to do their jobs right the first time. And that would just be silly, wouldn’t it?
With all of that said, I could almost — almost — forgive a movie for all these screenplay failings if it managed to hold suspense in other ways. But it doesn’t. The score and the visuals in this movie are both terribly mediocre. The only visuals in this movie that looked halfway decent were the aerial shots of downtown Portland, all of which were so gorgeous that I’m convinced the production outsourced those shots to someone else.
Yes, I may as well get back around to talking about the setting. In addition to some exquisite shots of the Portland skyline, the film also includes a few great looks at the Waterfront, the White Stag sign (the “Portland Oregon” version, if you’re curious), the Portland Streetcar, and a couple of the bridges as well. I should also add that Forest Park is just across the St. Johns Bridge, and of course the cameramen just had to include a shot of the beautiful St. Johns Bridge. Last but not least, the US Custom House appears, playing the Portland Police Headquarters here as it does on “Grimm.”
Alas, there were a few inevitable geography mix-ups to be noted. My favorite example is when Jill is seen driving across Burnside to go downtown. Yet when we see her workplace, the sign outside reads “SE Division.” Whoops!
But here’s the kicker: A huge chunk of this movie was shot near the east side of the Morrison Bridge. And wouldn’t you know it, that’s a part of the city that I know like the back of my hand. So naturally, I noticed a ton of geography screw-ups. One time, there’s a scene in which Jill is running away from a police blockade… except that I knew she was actually running into the police blockade. I got a great laugh out of that one.
All of that aside, even without my intimate knowledge of the area, the reuse is obvious. The editing and the staging are so clumsy that anyone could tell it’s the same five blocks in every damn shot. This proves to be especially harmful in the car chase scenes, since it’s just not easy to make a car chase fast or interesting when you only have the same three blocks to use over and over and over again.
I could tell that there was a great movie somewhere in Gone. The central premise of a kidnapping that may or may not have happened is a very interesting one, Amanda Seyfried clearly has some acting chops, and I know that Portland has a great story to be told through cinema. Unfortunately, the filmmakers were all so bereft of talent that they ended up wasting their premise, their star, and their setting. The godawful screenplay makes the Portland Police look like the Keystone Kops, and the visuals are all as bland and forgettable as the movie’s title. This is a suspense thriller that chooses to be as safe and conventional as possible, aiming for mediocrity and achieving its goal.
If you’re in the mood for a mystery that really knows how to use its Portland setting, pick out any two episodes of “Grimm” and watch those instead. The series may not be perfect, but it’s sure as hell better than this.