The sense of community has vanished. The neighborhood is no more. We live in isolated exclusivity from each other, no longer keeping up with the Joneses, but rather avoiding them outright. We’ve got politicians saying it takes a village to raise our kids, and yet the notion today of such togetherness is so oblique as to practically blot out the white flight suburban sun. Privacy has been replaced by isolationism, imagined horrendous actions playing out a mere few feet from your own sordid secrets. And we don’t care, as long as we are safe. As he wanders through his South Boston locality, PI Patrick Kenzie senses such disconnect. He sees through the feigned interest and media hype to recognize one sad fact – a child is missing, and no one knows anything that can really help him.
In the hands of first time director Ben Affleck, Gone Baby Gone arrives as one of 2007’s finest films. Taken from a novel by Mystic River author Dennis Lehane, this simple story of an abducted little girl, the surrounding investigation, and the suspicious mother at the center, has the kind of narrative power and acting prowess that elevates it above other like minded dramas. By capturing a sense of society lost, by using both the media focus and the behind closed doors denouements that seem to follow such situations, Affleck produces tragedy on an epic Greek scale and moviemaking of classic neo-noir artistry. In combination with some of the most riveting performances in recent memory, as well as a true sense of setting, what we wind up with is an incredibly dense and layered exploration of human ethics.
The saga of little Amanda McCready is already an overhyped press sensation when her distraught aunt Beatrice contacts local investigator Kenzie. Along with his live-in girlfriend/partner Angie Gennaro, the couple is known for helping debt collectors locate deadbeats. Reluctant to take on the case at first, a conversation with the child’s blasé, drug addled mother Helen changes everything. Realizing a local dope dealer may be involved (the kidnapping may have something to do with stolen drop money), Kenzie confronts the hood. His responses raise even more questions. Worse, a local pedophile has just been released from jail, and he’s holed up in a squalid shack with some fellow addicts. All signs point to an imminent threat to Amanda’s well being. With the help from a pair of Boston’s finest, and a dedicated police captain who has made crimes against children his number one priority, Kenzie may solve this crime – or worse, discover an unruly and unconscionable conspiracy underneath.
To give away more of the plot would absolutely ruin Gone Baby Gone. One of this film’s greatest strengths is the fact finding interactions between star Casey Affleck (Ben’s brilliant brother) and the individuals he interrogates. There’s a snarky, smug strategy and streetwise strength in how Kenzie handles these situations. He relies on alliances, long standing reputation, and an almost omniscient knowledge of underworld mechanics to dig behind the bullshit and discover the truth. These wonderfully evocative moments, scattered throughout the film like rewards at the end of a complicated maze, are the kind of payoffs we anticipate and expect. After all, hints and suggestions can only take us so far. Director Affleck understands this, and purposefully allows the verbal fireworks to close up a few loose ends before unraveling a couple more.
This is also a movie about attitude. Among the various victims and suspects presented, we can see a well honed stance, a formed façade given to the rest of the world to judge or junk. From the seemingly straight laced detectives who combine caring with a well earned callousness, to the McCready family and friends who offer conflicting messages of disgust and despair, the universe of this South Boston area is covered in contradictions. When we meet Beatrice, she’s a hard nosed relative who simply wants her niece back. But then the interactions with Helen suggest a more selfish, personal rationale. Similarly, a character like police captain Jack Doyle presents nothing but professionalism…that is, until he lets a little of his guard down, and the slightest hint of anxiety stumbles across his speech pattern. In a movie filled with secrets, such personalities play flawlessly into the mix. They make for a much richer, more fulfilling film.
So does the acting. While his turn in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was amazing, Casey Affleck’s work here is a revelation. He is so radiant, so unabashed in his studied swagger, that we breathlessly anticipate his next move. During a crucial shoot-out between Kenzie and the aforementioned house of drugs and depravity, the combination of fear and fierceness illustrate Affleck’s approach perfectly. He can talk the talk and walk the walk. Equally good are Ed Harris and John Ashton as the Boston cops. Without giving much away, they have to play both sides of the fence to forward the film’s agenda, and they do so spectacularly. While she didn’t offer much as the object of desire in The Heartbreak Kid, Michelle Monaghan does a dynamic job of bringing the story’s maternal elements to the fore. Her reactions, based almost exclusively in a female nurturing perspective, add an extra level of consideration here, and her last act resolve is simply stunning.
There are many other brilliant turns here – Morgan Freeman’s cloistered captain, Amy Madigan’s proud Irish aunt, Amy Ryan’s hedonistic hellion of a mom, Edi Gathegi’s slang spouting Haitian don – all proving that, when it comes to directing, Affleck really understands actors. But he’s also in tune with the artform’s more ephemeral facets. From the opening shots, where the Boston neighborhood is painted in brutal, authentic strokes (the extras give the concept of local color a dark, disenfranchised quality), to the set piece sequences where the plot points play out in electric, kinetic splashes, this is a tour de force that truly lives up to the tag. Gone Baby Gone shows a mastery of all the cinematic basics. Affleck then goes a step further and suggests that he knows how to turn said strategies into masterpieces.
Yet it’s the theme of ethical dilemma that this film returns to time and time again. Everyone here is in a quandary – from the victim whose dope-fueled lifestyle choices may have resulted in the literal loss of her child, to the PI who is hoping a successful resolution of this case will lead to more legitimate work – and how they respond to and decide these issues stand as Gone Baby Gone’s biggest reveals. Even characters we don’t think have a backdoor agenda turn out to be trading on their principles. It makes for a moody, complex entertainment, the kind of narrative that drags you in different directions to the point where you can’t anticipate where you’re going next – and you don’t really mind. The journey is so stunning that its frequent bouts of unbelievable cruelty really don’t distract.
Indeed, the only negative thing one can say about this film is that director Affleck’s Jenny from the Block tabloid rep may ruin the chances for a wider audience embrace. This is the kind of movie that resurrects your faith in film - not just as a diversion, but as the creator of meaningful human mythology. From its initial crawl to its final dour beat, Gone Baby Gone delivers on its premise, its promise, and its propositions. We may not like where it goes, and the images it offers can be too harsh for mellowed mainstream eyes, but the resulting work is celluloid at its most classical and filmmaking at its finest. Ben Affleck deserves a lot of credit for reinventing himself as a talent to be reckoned with, not ridiculed. Like the neighborhoods sitting at the center of his amazing movie, such tabloid sentiments are now gone, baby…gone.