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Directed by: Ben Affleck
Written by: Ben Affleck & Aaron Stockard
Give Ben Affleck credit for two things: he knows Boston and he knows his little brother Casey is a hell of an actor, and with those two assets in tow his directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone, a nasty tale of human monsters and missing children, isn't nearly as inauspicious as cynical viewers might expect from the hitherto largely lackluster actor. With its authentic sense of place, the film rises above the head of your average abducted child procedural in a manner its director rarely rises above the head of your average actor—through naturalistic credibility.
Casey stars as a private eye, teamed up with his girlfriend Michelle Monaghan; together they're like Nick & Nora, Jr., trying to prove they can play ball with the big boys when hired by a missing girl's aunt to assist in the "neighborhood aspect" of the abduction investigation. Casey "knows people who don't talk to the police," i.e. neighborhood hooligans, the people around whom he grew up—people who cuss like sailors, drop their r's and say things like "pawsitive". (Welcome to Boston: when Casey asks a kid who's blocking his car to move his bike, the no-more-than-ten-years-old rapscallion replies, "go fuck your mother!") The film has such a strong sense of realism that when characters brandish guns, as they occasionally do, the weapons serve as legitimately potent objects of menace—and not, as is par for the course in Hollywood pictures, mere movie props—genuinely upsetting the power balance in any given scene in which they appear.
Affleck's set-ups are largely by-the-books, but they serve his film well by staying out of the way of the story, which, for the first hour at least, is dynamite. Casey and the cops, including Morgan Freeman and Ed Harris, spend their screen time tearing through the dark Dorchester underground, revealed to us by the light of the projector bulb, probing the circumstances surrounding a little girl's mysterious disappearance from her mother's house; Gone Baby Gone is a tense, street's-eye view of the investigation, and the filmmakers even turn the genre on its ear a bit by making the grieving mother, a masterfully filthy performance from Amy Ryan, the antithesis of the sympathetic victim. She's an odious drunk and a cokehead, a stupid and selfish woman who seems more concerned with concealing her shady lifestyle than cooperating with the investigation. It makes all the people trying to help her, except Casey, livid. "Do you even give a fuck about your kid?" an exasperated, irate Harris finally shouts at her, speaking for both himself and the disgusted audience.
But the filmmakers don't go so far as to facilely reduce Ryan to an out-and-out creep either—it's a complex performance and a complex character, with glimmers of sympathetic sadness; even though she comes across as the worst possible kind of mother, somewhere beneath the layers of drug-induced apathy is a broken-up and loyal mom. That's the first hour of Gone Baby Gone in a nutshell, a complicated film not easily reduced to simple archetypes, one rife with good guys (and bad) but no heroes or good deeds, only abject duty and misguided altruism. While the standard missing child story is about rescuing an innocent from the grip of the evil forces of the world and returning it to the protection of its family, the lines are not so clear cut in Gone Baby Gone, which presents all sides as tainted and sullied. "Half the people he knows are degenerates," Harris says of Casey at one point. "Yeah, you know who the other half are?" Casey replies, "cops," underscoring the fine line that separates the two.
But unfortunately Gone Baby Gone begins to get a bit too full of itself in its later sections; by going to such pains to besmirch the institutions of police and family from top-to-bottom, it abandons some of its complexity and finally redeems Casey as the lone honorable hero, however ambiguously so. Gone Baby Gone's got a lot of "third act problems," as the characters sit around talking, dragging the film out to explain the central mystery's finer points, winding up with a story so complicated it approaches the convoluted as the filmmakers, over and over again, explain what happened only to take it back and explain it again with a different slant. In the end, the point is that, if family makes you who you are, as Casey intones at the film's start in voice-over, then children belong with their parents. For Casey, that's a black-and-white principle with no space for nuance, which would be fine except that director Ben goes to lengths far too great to hammer it home.