When four year-old Amanda McCready disappears, detectives Patrick Kenzie (Affleck) and Angie Gennaro (Monaghan) are brought in by the child’s aunt and uncle, despite the antagonism of the Boston P. D. and the bad attitude of the child’s mother.
Crime novelist Dennis Lehane (who has also written episodes of The Wire) is known for the acute sense of place and mood of desolation he evokes in writing of working-class Boston, specifically the tough Dorchester area where he has lived all his life. Clint Eastwood’s masterful Mystic River captured Lehane’s world with operatic intensity. With the bleak but fascinating Gone Baby Gone - adapted, in some scenes almost verbatim, from the fourth of Lehane’s books about private investigator partners Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) and Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan) - director Ben Affleck has taken a thoughtfully subdued approach to what is, it seems, his favourite novel. He sustains a concrete, authentic realism in what is, after all, his own hometown setting.
It’s a major directorial debut from Affleck, successfully combining the elements of a smart, intriguing police procedural with a distinctive Bostonian flavour and the psychological sophistication and moral complexity that distinguish the very best mystery thrillers. It also marks a stunning reversal of reputation for the man, whose credibility plunged from Academy Award-winning screenwriter (for Good Will Hunting) and Hollywood young lion through ignominies like his performance in daffy Armageddon and the full-time job of celebrity coupledom, obsessively paparazzi-chronicled, of the Bennifer years. A climb back to creative respect that began with his almost grudgingly praised performance in Hollywoodland is well and truly complete. Ben Affleck is no fool, and that’s official.
The plot is labyrinthine and on close inspection depends on some perhaps improbable clumsy mistakes, coincidences and convergences (although everyone in this claustrophobic ’hood plausibly has a shared past). But Affleck and co-writer Aaron Stockard (another of the tight Beantown buddies with whom the Afflecks and Matt Damon grew up) lay it out beautifully, coherently and heartbreakingly.
Unsurprisingly, all is not what it seems and people are devious, deceiving keepers of secrets and lies. The little girl may indeed have been snatched by a known serial paedophile, who the police quickly identify and pin for the outrage. But the child’s pathetic, spotlight-basking mother, Helene (Amy Ryan), is strangely, obnoxiously unhelpful and obviously knows more than she’s saying. Oscar nominee Ryan’s brilliantly observed, breathtakingly trashy character is a foul-mouthed boozer, user and generally skanky ho. Like Monaghan’s disapproving Angie, we are tempted to feel that wherever little Amanda is, unless it’s at the bottom of a quarry, she may be better off, and that her abductor or abductors, unless he, she or they are sexually deviant, may have simply beaten social services to the child’s rescue. Then there are the child’s aunt and uncle (Amy Madigan and Titus Welliver), apparently the only people in the world who gave a damn about Amanda before her disappearance, who begin to look shifty, too.
There is no shortage of potential suspects in the local criminal confraternity either, whose grievances, grudges and possible motives for revenge add strong undercurrents of suspicion. The police in the frame - Morgan Freeman’s respected, formidable Captain Jack Doyle, who has a strong personal motive to solve the case, and his dodgier lead detectives, Cajun hard man Remy Bressant (Ed Harris giving expert intimidation and inscrutability) and bullish sidekick Nick Poole (John Ashton) - have their agendas and are clearly working at resentful, patronising odds with Patrick, even when he demonstrates to them he knows what he’s about. Or, at least, naively thinks he does.
Patrick and Angie are young, which immediately ups the stakes and personal jeopardy for them. There are running comments on Patrick’s boyishness (like baby-faced Casey, he looks much younger than he is), which exacerbates the policemen’s hostility and disdain. And while the duo of seemingly amateurish sleuths are part of the neighbourhood fabric, at ease with the roughnecks and lowlifes, compared to most of the characters who surround them they are positively innocent. They don’t carry guns, and they seem happy and comfortable enough with their unambitious business tracking down missing people who are usually debtors and deadbeat dads. Patrick lives and works by a somewhat romantic gumshoe code of honour that gives him a certainty about what is just and right. Inevitably this mentality is going to doom him to a whole lot of heart-sick, soul-searching dismay when he finds himself looking at a palette of shades of grey. It is the more intuitive Angie who foresees what an unhappy outcome to the mysterious case of Amanda could do to them, both professionally and personally. She knows they are unprepared to swim in darker waters, and she is proven horribly right when they find themselves neck-deep in duplicity, murder, sociopathic drug dealers, horrific paedophiles, enigmatic cops and puzzles that can have no satisfactory solutions.
Some way into the film a nerve-shattering plot resolution seems to have been reached, but there is more to come. Clues and telling slips of the tongue are there for the alert, but the revelations that emerge, one after another, take us to disturbing places we could never expect.
In keeping with director Affleck’s reflective tone, his chief protagonist - another superlative turn from Casey Affleck, ensuring that he will never again be thought of as just ‘the kid brother’ - maintains an outer calm quietude, visibly and vocally holding Patrick’s churning emotions in check and putting over a mostly easy, relaxed-looking demeanour while microscopically suggesting Kenzie’s sharpness and overwhelming inner turmoil. Having come into his own with his Academy Award-nominated performance in The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, Affleck-the-younger proves it was no fluke in this flawless turn. Even in the seasoned company of Freeman, Harris and Madigan he commands the centre, in a drama that is compelling and demanding from start to finish. Pay attention to his opening voiceover, which is key to understanding why Patrick makes the difficult decision he has to live with at the end of the story.
Gone Baby Gone’s UK release was postponed from its original September 2007 scheduling over fears of causing offence or distress with its inevitable reminders of the Madeleine McCann case (the child actress in the film, whose name happens to be Madeline O’Brien, does resemble Maddy). But that tragedy shouldn’t be used to overshadow this completely unrelated story, superbly and thought-provokingly told.
A superior, haunting thriller of abduction, deception and ethical dilemma with a sobering ending - a moral quandary that demands strong debate outside the cinema.