It really doesn’t surprise me that Ben Affleck is a good director. In interviews, he has always projected a strong intelligence. Good Will Hunting proved that he can write. Consider, too, that he has worked with filmmakers as diverse as Kevin Smith, Gus Van Sant, John Frankenheimer, and Richard Linklater. No doubt he’s picked up a few good tips along the way. Gone Baby Gone - based on Dennis Lehane’s novel – is Affleck’s first attempt behind the camera (he co-wrote it too), and it proves that a second career is well within his grasp if he wants it.
Casey Affleck (Ben’s brother) plays Patrick Kenzie, a Boston-based private detective who specializes in finding missing persons. He and his girlfriend/partner Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan) are hired to supplement the investigation into the disappearance of a little girl. The girl’s mother, Helene (Amy Ryan), is a mess – not just because her child has been abducted but also because she’s involved in drugs, even doing some sideline work for a local dealer. The girl was left home alone and snatched while Helene was out snorting coke at a bar.
Kenzie works in conjunction with a local detective named Remy Bressant (Ed Harris) under the guidance of Jack Doyle (Morgan Freeman). Doyle’s own daughter was abducted and murdered, and he now heads up a special police unit devoted to protecting children. He wants no other parent to experience what he has. The investigation takes Kenzie and Remy into the Boston drug underworld, where they encounter a ruthless dealer nicknamed Cheese, as well as assorted pushes and users in seedy local drinking establishments. Although leads in the case come quickly, it takes time to track them down. Each day that goes by makes them Kenzie more desperate, as he realizes the girl’s time is running out, if it hasn’t already.
I want to be very careful what I say about the plot of Gone Baby Gone because it does have numerous plot twists, a major one of which completely surprised me. There’s a lot more to the story than I have revealed.
What’s more relevant is that this movie stands head and shoulders above a lot of crime dramas. While it certainly has the elements of a traditional “whodunit,” the film is just as interested in exploring the characters as it is the mystery. At its heart, Gone Baby Gone isn’t so much about who took the girl as it is about the people who look for her. The story’s primary theme is child welfare and the way those who love children will do whatever it takes to protect them. Of course, different people can have different views about what’s appropriate, which is reflected here too. Kenzie frequently bumps heads with Remy and others about what constitutes the best way to search for the girl. Especially toward the end, a lot of time is spent exploring the philosophical nature of the issue: How far should you go to protect children? How does it affect you if you don’t feel like you’re doing enough? Should you do whatever it takes to protect a child, or is there a line somewhere?
Affleck handles the subject matter with great maturity and compassion. That’s one of the things I love so much about this movie: it understands intentions. Kenzie, Angie, Remy, and Doyle all have every intention of doing right by children, yet their ideas of “right” aren’t always congruous. This dilemma pays off in all kinds of interesting and thoughtful ways.
The other really interesting thing about Gone Baby Gone is its authentic Boston feel. Shooting in his hometown, Affleck uses real places and employs local people as extras. The result is to make the viewer feel like he/she has really been dropped off in some of Boston’s harshest neighborhoods in the middle of this investigation. There’s something about the working class section of the city that Affleck captures beautifully. It’s a certain kind of tough-taking attitude, where even casual conversations are peppered with profanities and taunts and insults. The characters in this movie don’t take any crap from anybody, but they all give crap to everyone they see. This attitude contrasts nicely with the way everyone rallies around the family and the police as they try to find out what happened to the child.
Casey Affleck obviously has the central role here, and he’s fantastic. His performance is minimalist; he does a lot with just an expression or a glance. Most importantly, he projects Kenzie’s morality to us at every turn, his almost obsessive desire to make the responsible parties pay. There are some nice scenes between he and Monaghan, especially at the end when Kenzie and Angie have a lot to say to each other but don’t really need many words to do it. Harris and Freeman are, as always, dependably good, and so is Amy Madigan as the little girl’s aunt, who’s just as intent on finding her as the cops are.
Like a good novel, Gone Baby Gone sucks you in to its setting and its story. And when it’s over, you’re left with the realization that it goes beyond just being a good mystery. This is a film with something valid to say about child welfare, and it imparts its message with passion, depth, and grace.
( 1/2 out of four)
Gone Baby Gone is rated R for violence, drug content and pervasive language. The running time is 1 hour and 54 minutes.
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