Ben Affleck's complicated yet assured directorial debut GONE BABY GONE was a major surprise. I never jumped on the anti-Ben Affleck bandwagon, quite the contrary. I've enjoyed his performances in numerous movies, having found him especially engaging in DAZED AND CONFUSED, CHANGING LANES, CHASING AMY, BOUNCE, and THE SUM OF ALL FEARS. I could care less who he's dating and what politicians he hangs out with. His laid-back, easy-going screen presence is relaxing to watch when the material is a good fit. However, he now has a new career ahead of him. Rather than churning out an empty action film or silly sex comedy as his first directorial effort, Affleck, along with co-writer Aaron Stockard, has skillfully adapted MYSTIC RIVER author Denis Lehane's crime-noir novel GONE BABY GONE, and Affleck has directed the film with a veteran's touch. It's an uncommonly mature film for a first timer, and minor quibbles aside, an extremely accomplished piece of filmmaking.
Working with a splendid cast of well-known actors as well as recruiting real-life people from the streets of Boston, Affleck shows an immediate ability during the opening moments of GONE BABY GONE of setting atmosphere and flavor. The story takes place in the working-class, low-income neighborhoods surrounding Boston, where drug abuse, crime, and poverty are common. Right away, as the camera prowls the streets, resting (sometimes too much) on the weathered and time-beaten faces of the townspeople, you get a sense of place and distinction that separates this crime tale from others set in bigger cities like New York or Chicago. Affleck, a Boston native, has an intrinsic knowledge of these neighborhoods and the people, resulting in a film that feels natural and believable, no matter how sordid the plot becomes.
Casey Affleck, Ben's younger brother, gives his second terrific performance of the year (he was utterly magnetic in THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD) as private investigator Patrick Kenzie, a low key fellow who when push comes to shove, isn't afraid to get nasty. He lives and works with his girlfriend Angie, played by the pretty yet miscast Michelle Monaghan. They are approached for help by the aunt and uncle of a local four year old girl who has disappeared from her apartment. The girl’s mother, Helene, played with diseased intensity by Amy Ryan, is a semi-junkie who can barely take care of herself, let alone a child. The cops are on the case as well, led by police captain Jack Doyle (a sage as ever Morgan Freeman), and detective Remy Bressant (an always intense Ed Harris), though their loyalties remain a mystery. I'm hesitant to explain much more of the plot, except to say that Kenzie, working with the cops and on his own to find the missing girl, delves into the seedy world of white-trash, low-class street thugs, drug addicts, pedophiles, and general sociopaths in an effort to learn the truth and return the girl alive and unharmed. GONE BABY GONE gets a little murky in its late-in-the-game plotting but in the end, it all adds up rather soundly. But what I was not prepared for was Affleck's dogged determination as a filmmaker to steep himself, and the audience, in such dark, forbidding sequences of crime and societal disorder.
GONE BABY GONE is almost two movies in one, with multiple storylines all adding up to its sad but honest conclusion. The moral ambiguity that GONE BABY GONE revels in results in an interesting picture to watch. Some of the actions of the characters are questionable, but when you think about some of the darker and tougher choices that the characters have to make, you find yourself agreeing with how things are played out. "Murder is a sin," Kenzie quietly remarks to Bressant at a crucial moment in the film. "Depends on who you do it to," Bressant coolly retorts. It's a powerful, simple exchange of dialogue that comes on the heels of a scary, violent shoot out at the end of the second act, and it provides the audience with an extra layer of insight to an already complicated series of events. Affleck doesn't shy away from making the viewer emotionally complicit in some of Kenzie's violent actions, which can make some viewers uneasy. For me, it makes the film even richer, adding a dimension to its themes which elevates it over other entries in the genre.
Affleck trips up a bit in a few instances. One action scene is poorly shot and lit (which is a surprise given that the cameraman is the legendary John Toll, THE THIN RED LINE and BRAVEHEART), which makes it confusing for the audience. I know that the scene is supposed to be confusing for the characters, but the audience should never be left in the dark. Affleck likes the trashy Boston locals so much, that his constant cut-aways become a little indulgent; I get the fact that hard-asses and alcoholics are all over these particular city streets but at a certain point, it feels like you're being beaten over the head with this message. As I mentioned earlier, the plot of GONE BABY GONE begins to creak under its own weight towards the last act, but it never falls apart, and once all the pieces have been shown, everything makes sense. But these are minor issues; it's a testament to Affleck's strong filmmaking abilities that he gets so much right in his first feature as director that these problems seem almost slight.
Casey Affleck is positively riveting all throughout GONE BABY GONE. Ditching the purposefully mannered and rigid technique that he brought to his work in JESSE JAMES, the role of Kenzie seems like a role that Affleck was born to play. His non-threatening physical attributes clashes with his hot temper which is a nice balance. Holding a gun (and using it when necessary), Affleck looks and feels like a young private investigator. He may seem too young for the part upon first thought, but any doubt in your mind will be erased immediately upon meeting him in the film. Harris, who seems incapable of ever being bad or uninteresting on screen, tears up his scenes with a vicious ferocity that only a few actors seem to be able to channel. It's a brooding, menacing film that requires brooding, menacing characters, and Harris is right at home. Freeman, in a slightly different role than what he's been asked to do lately, is his usual believable self. But it's Amy Ryan who totally stuns as Helene, the disgusting, reprehensible mother of the missing child. Never seeming to truthfully care about her daughter's disappearance, Ryan creates a portrait of a mommy-monster that is chilling in its persuasiveness. And what a shock to see her as a perfectly delightful member of Steve Carell's family in the sunny and cheery DAN IN REAL LIFE; Ryan has range that few actresses even come close too.
GONE BABY GONE is a crime film for crime film lovers. Its story lives in and travels to some dark, upsetting places, its characters are all wounded, either emotionally or physically, and the overriding sense of grime and filth leaves you feeling a little skeevy by the end of it. But it's powerfully written and directed and acted, and it's the rare piece of entertainment that will leave you discussing its themes and story implications long after you've left the theater. I found myself thinking about this movie all week (I saw it last weekend) and it's gotten better as I've mulled it over. Ben Affleck has landed as an important filmmaker and has given noir fans a nasty slice of life with GONE BABY GONE.