Gone Baby Gone

I was not an enthusiastic fan of Clint Eastwood's Mystic River. Sure, it's a fine film with an impeccable pedigree, but Eastwood, for all his taste and skill, was too serious and too deliberate in bringing Dennis Lehane's engrossing crime novel to the screen, losing both its urgency and energy. Maybe the Hollywood legend has lived in California too long, but the much-lauded film never convincingly captured its gritty Boston neighborhoods or the all-too-permeable line between working-class Joes and the criminal gangs that live next door.

So, in steps every tabloid's favorite whipping boy, Ben Affleck, to show the old man how it's done. Though he hasn't the sparing, self-assured touch that Eastwood brings to his movies, the actor-turned-first-time director imbues Lehane's Gone Baby Gone with an undeniable sense of place and time. From the film's opening shots, where a battered Dorchester neighborhood in Boston is sketched in mercilessly authentic strokes, Affleck captures the author's grim view of a shattered community sliding into corrosive despair. Isolation has replaced privacy and defeat hangs above every ratty porch barbeque.

It's here that reporters and television news crews descend, like aliens, to broadcast to the world the sad zoo of animals who've suffered yet another tragedy. Four-year-old Amanda McCready has been abducted and though the media preys on the fears and sympathies of its viewers, they miss that the little girl's mother is a negligent drug user, her father's AWOL and the police are either unmotivated or simply resigned to the child's tragic fate. But Amanda's aunt (Amy Madigan) is determined to bring her niece home so she turns to neighborhood PIs Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) and Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan). Reluctant at first, the duo soon discovers ties to a drug theft gone wrong, a local pedophile that has just been released from jail and a deepening web of conspiracies that raise big ethical and moral questions.

It's smart, riveting stuff and Affleck maintains a steady hand on his neo-noir's convoluted plot. Penning the screenplay with Aaron Stockard, Affleck sometimes slips into predictable genre beats but as a director he understands actors, knows how to compose a scene and creates real moments of tension and raw emotion. It helps that he's recruited the great John Toll (Braveheart, Last Samurai) as his cinematographer.

In handing his younger brother Casey the lead, however, Affleck risked accusations of stunt casting or family cronyism. But after the 32-year-old actor's bravura turn in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, there's little doubt his sibling is destined for leading roles. Disarmingly youthful, Casey throws himself headlong into the role of Kenzie, effectively deepening his performance as the plot sends him into one moral dilemma after another. And yet, he's wrong for the part. Too slender and tightly wound, brother Casey doesn't have the proper gravity to carry off the world-weary yet doggedly noble Kenzie. Both Afflecks seem to acknowledge this and try to compensate with precision acting and sarcastic comments about his youth, but it's never enough. And while Monaghan capably provides the younger Affleck with emotional ballast, the young actress is similarly slight.

In contrast, Affleck's carefully chosen supporting cast is first-rate. Madigan, Ed Harris, Morgan Freeman, John Ashton and little known but equally impressive TV actors Titus Welliver and Amy Ryan, round out Gone Baby Gone with lived-in authenticity.

But what makes Ben Affleck's filmmaking debut rise above similar crime dramas is its layered exploration of human ethics and moral relativism. Gone Baby Gone's gut-wrenching dilemmas reveal the ambiguity of human nature and test each character's ethical resolve. Listen to Ed Harris's fiery monologue about which side he's chosen and you can't help but become pulled into the quagmire of emotions and values that drive Lehane's tragic tale. Everyone here is in a quandary, trading on principles to arrive at the right answer and Kenize's last act choice distills the age-old impasse: How do you weigh your sense of what's right against what may be the greater good?

Like Raymond Chandler, Dennis Lehane and Ben Affleck understand that the role of the noir detective is to draw the line between right and wrong. The archetype brings with it a moral certainty in an uncertain world, ensuring that a reckoning comes for those who violate the code. Gone Baby Gone's sublime final shot reveals just how hollow that reckoning can be.

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