I guess Ben Affleck didn’t like his current position in life as Global Punchline (bravura performance in “Hollywoodland” notwithstanding). No, it seems that the former cuckold half of “Benniffer” has come out and shown that he might just have a very rosy future as a top-level director, based upon his initial effort in the gritty mystery “Gone Baby Gone”.
As surprising as Ben’s talent behind the camera has turned out to be, it is almost equaled by the revelation that Ben’s goofy little brother, Casey Affleck, is the perfect person to carry the movie on his slight shoulders. No longer just the comic relief in George Clooney’s Oceans’ X movies, the younger Affleck is the embodiment of a blue collar survivor in the roughest neighborhoods of old Boston, much more believable, in fact, than Matt Damon in the Southie hit “Good Will Hunting”.
Affleck plays a young private detective named Patrick Kenzie, who, along with his girlfriend and partner Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan), have made a nice little niche for themselves, tracking down people for repossessions. It’s not the glamorous private eye work often portrayed, but it’s also not the down-and-out strugglers wondering where their next meal will come from.
Into this comfortable arrangement comes Lionel and Beatrice McCready (Titus Welliver and Amy Madigan). Their four year old niece has been abducted, and Bea wants Patrick to help find her. “You know these streets, these people,” she says. “They won’t talk to the police. They’ll talk to you”. Angie is reluctant. She feels that once they get sucked into a case she feels “will end badly”, their life will never be the same. But after meeting with the mother, a drug addicted, hard partying wreck, Patrick is indeed sucked in. The last straw is the condescending treatment he receives from the police about his “credentials” along with his youthful appearance. The chip on his shoulder has been jostled, and Patrick dives right in without thinking.
Since this is a mystery, divulging more of the plot would be unfair to the reader. Suffice to say, Patrick finds that there is a lot more to all of this than meets the eye as he works side by side with a pair of no nonsense police detectives, played by the always amazing Ed Harris and John Ashton, in an interesting variation of the detective partner he played in the “Beverly Hills Cop” movies. The detectives aren’t thrilled to have Patrick hanging around them, but under the law, they have no choice. So upon the orders of their captain (Morgan Freeman), they keep Patrick informed of their progress in tracking the little girl.
“Gone Baby Gone” is based from a novel from Dennis Lehane, and it is an earlier, less polished work than his other Boston-based story involving an abused child “Mystic River”. Clint Eastwood did a fantastic job in bringing “Mystic River” to life, aided to no small degree by Sean Penn, Kevin Bacon, and Tim Robbins turning in such realistic performances as denizens of that rough and tumble area of South Boston. Ben Affleck isn’t as blessed by marquee actors, or by the superior script from “Mystic River”, but he makes up for it in atmosphere. The rough bars, somber streets, and decaying houses have a realistic feel that anyone familiar with the blue collar areas of Cleveland can identify with. Into this background, Casey Affleck disappears into the role; all you see is the character as he interacts with “his people”.
But that’s not to say he’s completely accepted by all of them. Patrick and Angie went to school with many of the people they run across, and most of the ones on the lower end of the social structure remember Angie as “snooty” and Patrick as a little too “middle class” for them. Ed Harris’s detective Remy Bressant is bothered by his lack of acceptance as well. He is originally from Louisiana, but when Patrick makes a comment about him “not being from around here”, Bressant bristle’s “I’ve been in Boston longer than you’ve been alive. So who actually is more ‘from here’?”
The performances are top notch. Amy Ryan may have earned herself best supporting actress consideration with her brave performance as a mother more interested in getting high than ensuring that her child is safe. You will not like her Helene McCready in the slightest…but you will feel for her. Monoghan downplays her runway model looks and delivers a grounded, mature portrayal of the “voice of reason” to keep Patrick centered. Madigan and Welliver slip right into their roles as the aunt and uncle who seem more concerned for the child’s welfare than does the mother.
The only actor who doesn’t quite work in his role, surprisingly, is Morgan Freeman. In his case, he truly doesn’t “fit in”, and the character really needs to. It is no fault of Freeman, who has always been an exceptional actor, but sometimes the actor just doesn’t match up with the role.
All in all, however, this is a very good movie. The plot may lumber around at some points, and then go full throttle in three different directions, but Ben Affleck manages to still keep it relatively taut, and always suspenseful. But the true beauty of this movie is that it’s bold enough to ask very tough questions about morality…the kinds of questions that you will leave the theater asking yourself. My wife and I debated the “what would you do?” questions arising from it, and came up with different points of view. This is not a case of someone knowing what is right, but not sure if he has the strength to act on it, such as “Michael Clayton”. There are multiple shades of gray at work in “Gone Baby Gone”, and the Affleck Brothers make you examine every single one of them.
My Rating: Brian Sipe (3 ½ footballs).
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