Gone Baby Gone

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 01/03/08 12:11:54

"Awesome, baby, awesome."
5 stars (Awesome)

Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro are private investigators, the heroes of a series of novels from Dennis Lehane. They specialize in missing persons cases, and they are successful because people will talk to them in ways they will not to the police; like most of those Patrick and Angie must interrogate, they have lived their lives in the same tight corner of Boston, where everybody knows everybody, or at least think they do. It’s a lot easier to gain someone’s trust when you went to high school with a brother, a neighbor, a close family friend.

This sense of community lingers over every scene of “Gone Baby Gone,” the fourth book in Lehane’s series and the first to be adapted into a film. That the movie has been directed and co-written by Ben Affleck, his first feature in such a role, may seem like either a warning or a gimmicky selling angle, depending on your point of view. On the contrary, Affleck’s work behind the camera is so self-assured and so knowing that this marks the arrival of a brilliant new voice in cinema.

Affleck feels like the right choice to tackle this project. His love for Boston has not changed in the decade since “Good Will Hunting,” and this appreciation for such a tightly knit area is essential to the story itself, and to those in it. Its very Boston-ness is what makes it click; the tone of “lived on the same block all my life” just doesn’t seem to fit in the same way. The same vibe was used to great effect in “Mystic River” (another Lehane adaptation) and “The Departed,” and here, Affleck, with a flawless feel for neighborhood, actually improves on those works. Just take a look at the initial establishing scenes, which show a laid-back Boston afternoon. With just a few shots of ordinary people doing ordinary things, accompanied by brother Casey Affleck’s hushed narration, the older Affleck sets up the next two hours with airtight efficiency and glorious ease.

The film opens with the kidnapping of the daughter of a drug addict; the police are dutiful in their investigations, but too slow, and so the girl’s family asks Patrick (played by Casey Affleck) and Angie (Michelle Monaghan) to lend a hand. This is more than the couple is used to, and although they take the case (mostly out of a sense of neighborly obligation), they are fully aware that their job will now take them into places they don’t want to go. After all, it’s one thing to hunt down a spouse who’s skipped town, but who wants to be the one to find a dead child in the bushes?

In another movie, this would be enough - the story is packed with colorful, dangerous characters, with truths buried under half-truths buried under quarter-truths, and the way Patrick and Angie uncover all of this makes for thrilling stuff. Indeed, this is the best straight-up mystery to come along in years, the cinematic equivalent of a gripping page-turner. We’re easily lost in this labyrinthine world of dirty cops and vicious criminals, and Affleck finds the right level of grit to coat the entire tone of the piece.

But the screenplay (Aaron Stockard shares scripting credit with Affleck) is not content with making this merely about plot. “Gone Baby Gone” finds its way into the hearts of the characters themselves, and into the very morality of the situations in which we find them. The film ends with a killer of an ethical quandary, which, in non-spoiler terms, can be boiled down to: is it better to do something very wrong if it could lead to something good, or to do something right even if it could lead to something bad?

The entire film could be summed up as an ever-shifting debate over the very definition of right and wrong. And watch how the script and the cast revel in teasing us with the issue. Some scenes put it right up front, like the brilliant monologue from the crooked Detective Bressant (Ed Harris at his most mesmerizing) in which he defends a time he planted evidence; other scenes bury the movie’s themes off to the sides, in the pockets or behind the cold stares of the story’s supporting cast.

Which brings us again to matters of community. What Affleck gets right more than anything else is a sense of reality - there's never a moment that feels inauthentic, which is important when it comes to presenting this compact neighborhood. Affleck has created a world that lives and breathes on its own terms, which is important, as it allows the convolutions of the plot to feel permissible. These aren’t cheap story gimmicks but genuine surprises born from this reality.

Affleck’s flawless direction and scripting are then enhanced by what could be the year’s best ensemble cast. Dependable names like Harris, and Morgan Freeman are matched scene-for-scene with lesser known actors Titus Welliver, Trudi Goodman, Edi Gathegi, and Slaine. Familiar faces Amy Madigan, Mark Margolis, and John Ashton shine in minor roles. Monaghan and the younger Affleck effortlessly bring their leading roles to life, making for an authentic couple along the way.

Indeed, Affleck’s turn here is spectacular, holding the story together with amazing ease; it’s easily the best performance in his young career, a carefully honed interpretation built on restraint.

And, of course, all the things you may have heard about Amy Ryan are true. Ryan, a longtime character actor and stage veteran, has raised countless eyebrows in her breakthrough performance as Helene, the drug-addicted mother of the kidnapped girl. Watch what she does with the role; instead of hamming it up, Ryan digs deep and finds the humanity in this weary woman. She never appears to be reaching for the spotlight, and yet she earns our attention in every frame.

Working with such a perfect cast in such an elegantly crafted world, Affleck then allows himself the room for his story to rattle around in ways that dig under our skin. “Gone Baby Gone” is a masterful work, going beyond the boundaries of simple detective thriller and into the realm of intelligent, morally complex drama.

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