A butt of cinematic jokes because of his roles in Michael Bay flicks and his disastrous on-and-off-screen fling with Jennifer Lopez, Ben Affleck has always seemed smarter as himself than in movies. (Few recent celebrities have seemed brighter or more decent during election season.) It's refreshing then — and not really surprising — that Affleck's best film work since his affable, believable turn in Chasing Amy comes in this directorial debut.
Affleck and screenwriting partner Aaron Stockard adapt Boston crime-fiction writer Dennis Lehane's finest detective-series title in Gone Baby Gone, the story of a young couple hired as private investigators to assist the police in the search for an abducted 4-year-old girl.
Affleck took a big risk in the central casting of his younger brother, Casey, as private investigator Patrick Kenzie, a hardened Boston product able to get information from people who won't talk to the police. The younger Affleck looks too callow for the part, something the script acknowledges by stating the character's age of 31 and allowing that Casey Affleck looks younger.
But the director's younger brother pans out, making the character believable while shrewdly underplaying around a strong, more ferocious supporting cast, led by Ed Harris as a cop also looking for the girl and Amy Ryan (Beadie Russell on HBO's The Wire) as the missing child's negligent mother.
It helps, also, that Affleck — a Boston native — does right by the movie's low-rent Beantown setting and characters. The Dorchester denizens in Gone Baby Gone feel less like a romanticized working class than the round-the-way Bostonians of, say, Clint Eastwood's Mystic River, another Lehane adaptation.
Gone Baby Gone seems extremely faithful to Lehane's novel (from what I remember — it's been a few years since I read it), so much so that cramming the book's plot contortions into an under-two-hour movie makes the big reveal at the end feel even more contrived. That there's a limit to the damage done by this is because Gone Baby Gone, much like the novel, rises above its genre. It's true concern lies beyond the plot mechanics of a mystery or police procedural. It's a story about moral ambiguity amid societal decay and about the utter sadness that inflicts the lives of too many kids.
Affleck never loses sight of this, with a series of small touchstones — the deftly heartbreaking cut to the girl's aunt holding a picture of the missing child; the film's title uttered by a bit character; Kenzie's work and life partner Angie (Michelle Monaghan) pleading to decline the case because she doesn't want to be the one to find a baby in a dumpster; a deflating, perfectly framed final shot — making more of an impact than the twisty storyline that would be the emphasis of a lesser film. Gone Baby Gone is a mystery in which solving the case is easier than deciding what actions to take with the information.
Gone Baby Gone
Opening Friday, October 19th