A double dose of Affleck in a Boston-set (where else?) investigatory drama that establishes a solid second career beachhead for older brother Ben.
Built around the case of a missing little girl, Ben Affleck’s directorial debut — based on a novel of the same name by Dennis Lehane, the author of Mystic River — delivers a topical story while avoiding pat moral judgments, weaving a labyrinthine and effectively melancholic tale of warped responsibility and justice.
Gone Baby Gone unfolds in tight-knit, working class South Boston, the sort of neighborhood where, as the opening narration informs us, “people started in the cracks and slipped from there.” Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) is a bail bondsman and private investigator who chases down stolen property and the like with his girlfriend/lesser partner Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan). When the 4-year-old daughter of neighbor Helene McCready (Amy Ryan) goes missing, distraught relatives tap Patrick to augment the investigation, leaning on informants who might not be inclined to talk to the police.
The official inquiry is being headed up by Lieutenant Jack Doyle (Morgan Freeman), a decorated police officer and the chief of a special unit dedicated to missing children, along with square-jawed cops Remy Bressant (Ed Harris), a transplanted Louisianan, and his partner Nick Poole (John Ashton, keeping his badge warm for that long-gestating fourth installment in the Beverly Hills Cop franchise). It soon becomes clear, however, that not all is as it seems. Helene has a drug problem, the sort of shady acquaintances that come with it, and a reputation for irresponsible partying. In addition, her brother and sister-in-law (Titus Welliver and Amy Madigan, respectively) seem, on the surface, more concerned with matters than she is.
Patrick’s convoluted search leads him to various drug peddlers, crime bosses, pedophiles and compromised law enforcement, many of whom it seems he went to high school with. (How’s that for a small world?) Just when it seems the case has wound down, a new lead sparks up, causing Patrick and Angie to question their previous read on matters.
The younger Affleck — getting plenty of notice for his role in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford — may strike some as an intriguing, and maybe even wrongheaded, choice to play Patrick, given that his thin, reedy voice and slight stature don’t lend themselves well to proactive exploit. In a way, though, these qualities jibe with the character. Patrick is a part that it’s easy to imagine the older Affleck — taller, effortlessly dapper, more articulate — being heedlessly crammed into maybe six or seven years ago, just because it reads in some small measure as “heroic.” As is, Casey Affleck’s casting — and even his performance, which embraces both reservation and torment — create some doubt as to whether Patrick can pull off things that the situation requires, and this is to the movie’s benefit.
The taut, downhill energy of the first act flags some as the movie wears on, lost to a daisy chain of reversals and upturned assumptions. But Gone Baby Gone never succumbs to outright murkiness, and its detail is spot-on. Affleck’s familiarity with and obvious affinity for the setting — with its heavy accents and piss-ahhff attitudes — enhance both the film’s novelistic richness and sense of rootedness. Much of the dialogue is crackerjack fun, especially early on, when Patrick butts heads with a variety of local criminal-type scumbags, as well as the hard-to-impress Remy.
Special mention should go to Ryan, a twice-Tony-nominated stage actress with a slate of film roles forthcoming. She plays white-trash Helene with an unapologetic self-involvement — the unblinking victim of her own shattered childhood, who now knows no choices other than poor and self-indulgent. Still, the source material is the greatest strength here. Co-adapted with Aaron Stockard, Affleck’s take perhaps necessarily dials down the book’s indictment of the media as a noxious codefendant (such hammering would only come off as sour grapes).
If, in the end, Gone Baby Gone is a bit over-plotted, the movie comes to the questions it raises honestly, and has the guts to present an ending that is both “right” while also alienating to at least half an audience. It also embraces an abrasive, bruised, combative quality that far too many genre pictures of its ilk attempt to avoid — all good signs for the older Affleck’s career behind the camera.