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Gone Baby Gone

A Worthwhile Filmmaking Debut by Ben Affleck

For his feature film debut as a director, actor/screenwriter Ben Affleck decided to adapt Dennis Lahane’s (Mystic River) bestselling crime novel, Gone Baby Gone. After winning an Academy Award with longtime friend Matt Damon for Good Will Hunting, Affleck went on to give a series of uninspired, erratic performances. Although Affleck has given the odd watchable performance or two (e.g., Hollywoodland, The Sum of All Fears, Changing Lanes), Affleck’s career has suffered due to a combination of factors, including the aforementioned lackluster performances, poor acting choices, and oversaturation as a result of tabloid coverage. Turning to directing seemed like a smart move for Affleck. It was, as Gone Baby Gone is an often riveting, provocative crime drama.

A four-year old girl, Amanda McCready (Madeline O'Brien), disappears from the working class neighborhood of Dorchester, Boston, after her mother, Helene (Amy Ryan), leaves her unattended for several hours. A media frenzy erupts as news spreads of Amanda’s abduction. In response, the police dedicate massive resources to finding Amanda, but after three days without any leads, Amanda’s aunt and uncle, Beatrice (Amy Madigan) and Lionel (Titus Welliver), decide to hire two private investigators, Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) and Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan). Although Kenzie and Gennaro express doubts, they agree to take the case and help in whatever capacity they can.

Captain Jack Doyle (Morgan Freeman), the head of the Crimes Against Children unit, has little interest in allowing Kenzie or Gennaro to help with the investigation, but gives in to the McCready family. The lead detectives on the case, Remy Bressant (Ed Harris) and Nick Poole (John Ashton), see Kenzie and Gennaro as unnecessary distractions, but agree to share information with them, but only under duress and with the expectation that the private investigators will share anything relevant they learn with the police detectives. Kenzie and Gennaro lean heavily on their street contacts for any leads. What they find, however, leads to a seemingly tragic resolution to the McCready case, another abduction, and a series of revelations and developments that lead Kenzie to question his previous assumptions and conclusions about the case.

Gone Baby Gone doesn’t downplay the more sensationalistic aspects surrounding missing children, playing the “serious” card by having characters cite disturbing statistics about missing children that, in turn, reflect universal concerns. While Gone Baby Gone is, at its center, a crime drama/thriller that methodically adheres to police procedural tropes, it’s all the more effective for keeping the sermonizing to a minimum.

There’s still plenty of subtext to go around, though, with modest criticism aimed at the media for its willingness to exploit personal tragedies for ratings and profit, police corruption and government agencies that inadequately serve the public good. But somewhere along the way, Gone Baby Gone morphs from a police procedural to a morality play, with Kenzie forced to choose between two alternatives, each with their own set of positive and negative consequences.

That description makes Gone Baby Gone sound like a dry, socio-political tract. It’s not. As important as those issues are, Affleck never forgets that the movie is first and foremost a drama/thriller and directs with an emphasis on narrative economy and efficiency, putting story and character first, themes second. In that, Affleck is well served by a talented cast, including Ed Harris, as intense here as he’s ever been, Morgan Freeman in ever-dependable world-weary mode, Michelle Monaghan, in a warmly sympathetic turn in a supporting turn, and Affleck’s younger brother, Casey, bringing an idiosyncratic vulnerability and perhaps willful naïveté to the lead character.

Sure Ben Affleck opened himself to claims of nepotism (true as far as that goes), but at least here, he did right by the role. Ben Affleck may have just discovered his true calling: he’s better suited behind the camera than in front of it.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars


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