Gone Baby Gone

Reviewed By Erik Childress
Posted 10/19/07 14:00:00

"Not Only Can He Play, But He Can Shoot"
5 stars (Awesome)

Gone, Baby, Gone has many familiar elements from both the history of the crime drama and the last adaptation of a Dennis Lehane novel. That, as you may recall, was Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River, the story of a young girl’s murder and the subsequent grief and call to justice felt by her family and the Boston community. This film, based on the fourth in Lehane’s series about private investigators Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro, also arrives as the directorial debut of Ben Affleck. Whatever initial scoff that may bring to its description, the film also rings with the familiarity that the actor brought to his Oscar-winning screenplay for Good Will Hunting. The atmosphere of his hometown and an attention to evolving motivations through a recognizable genre landscape elevate Gone, Baby, Gone to not just one of the strongest pictures of the year, but one of the best debuts behind the camera for any filmmaker, moviestar or otherwise.

Dorchester is awash in coverage over the disappearance of 4 year-old Amanda McCready. With such cases inherently crucial for info in the first 24 hours, three days have passed and the girl’s aunt and uncle, Beatrice and Lionel (Amy Madigan and Titus Welliver), are desperate. They want to hire Patrick (Casey Affleck) and his partner (both professionally and domestic), Angela (Michelle Monaghan) to use their own contacts from the neighborhood to help find the girl. Angela is hesitant in signing up for fear of seeing a dead face as the outcome, but they take the case, despite scornful looks from Police Chief Jack Doyle (Morgan Freeman), himself once the victim of a murdered child. He doesn’t care who gets the glory though. He just wants Amanda home safe.

Doyle directs them to the lead detectives on the case, Remy Broussard (Ed Harris) and his partner, Nick (John Ashton, in a welcome return to the screen), discovering some disturbing inconsistencies from Amanda’s mother, Helene (Amy Ryan, in an infuriating portrayal of absentee motherhood). Her trashy behavior as a single mom makes Britney Spears a contender for mother of the year, but its her involvement with those who deal her the drugs that may have directly lead to her daughter’s fate. The local criminal element combined with a large sum of cash and a recently released trio of junkies and pedophiles pave the way for Patrick to solve the mystery but don’t prepare him for the door his conscience is asked to walk through.

Keen on the details is the elder Affleck who establishes right away that he’s not going to whisk us through the elements of just another procedural. From the first images on, Ben places us into the neighborhoods he knows so well so that the city itself becomes as important a character as any of the multitude of supporting characters, not one of whom doesn’t contribute to the overall asthetic of establishing mood or fleshing out another. With his babyface appearance and “medium” frame, brother Casey seems like the antithesis of a protagonist who can walk into a room and demand answers, let alone one populated with the likes of Morgan Freeman and Ed Harris. Together they make it work though, combining the tough-guy confidence he displays when protecting Angela’s honor and the inexperience of facing life-and-death danger to form a moral compass perfect for the events about to transpire.

You can tell just from the way Affleck has cast his film that he’s a fan of great drama. (Welliver was a regular on HBO’s Deadwood while Ryan and Michael K. Williams, who makes a brief appearance, have done time on The Wire.) Gone, Baby, Gone even has the feel of a weekly series that you can’t wait to return to and hate to see end. With scene after scene, Affleck is providing both build-up and a knockout punch to conclude them either in the next revelation or simply in the dialogue and the way a seasoned pro like Harris delivers even the most minute syllable with authority. From the hard sarcasm of questioning a less-than-forthright suspect to a powerful speech that holds more than a few keys to the film’s late discoveries (including about ourselves), it’d be criminal to not see him with another Oscar nomination for his first-rate work here.

Familiar only with Lehane’s work through the adaptation of Mystic River, expectations of all’s-well-that-ends-well certainly were tempered with the reality of child abduction cases and a proclivity towards the aftermath of a tragedy rather than a solution. So when Gone, Baby, Gone takes one particular turn towards a more traditional climax of the one-hour “gotcha” variety, I skulked in my seat praying to the movie Gods that everything wasn’t going to be this simple. Someone clearly was listening as its just a diversion (and not merely a red herring); opening a door to a more disturbing mosaic that has become the norm for a society that believes a moral compass only points to rights and wrongs.

Like another actor-to-director debut, Bill Paxton’s Frailty, having both sides of the story don’t make the finality of our choices any easier to make, but make our regret more expedient when we rush to judgment on what’s best for someone else. Our sins, if such things exist, can not be washed away by making ourselves a moral authority. Something any number of politicians and televangelists have proven time and again. While the religious underpinnings of the community could have been established better (it’s kinda wedged in about midway), it’s a primordial trait that’s hard to avoid in our hero’s self-reconciliation of the second half. Unlike the twist I feared, Affleck wisely avoids easy answers, but does graze our sensitive portions in a final dialogue exchange that is more damning the more it resonates against what was previously reported in a news report. Once you make that connection, it is impossible to forget and maybe the beginning of appreciating what an exceptional piece of directing that Ben Affleck has done with Gone, Baby, Gone.

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