“Gobble, gobble.” Two magic words that saw Ben Affleck’s credibility dry up like camel’s piss in the desert. That was Gigli. That was five years ago. Now it’s time to make the critics eat it. After seemingly punching the self-destruct button on his career, Affleck has returned with a brooding, doomy directorial debut of startling courage and bristling moral complexity.
Surprised? Stunned, even? Well, maybe you shouldn’t be. The last time this guy co-wrote something, he won an Oscar. Even beyond resonances with the real-life mystery of Madeline McCann, Gone Baby Gone‘s subjects are dangerous, difficult movie-meat: kidnap, paedophilia, killing and cocaine lurking in the shadows of everyday life. But if Affleck and co-screenwriter Aaron Stockard are adapting Mystic River author Dennis Lehane’s novel, one thing becomes immediately clear: we’re in Ben’s backyard.
Right from the opening shots, Affleck drags us into his old Boston stomping ground – the mean streets where he and his brother grew up – with total assurance. Textured in rough shades of grey, there’s no doubting the 36-year-old’s feel for the city as a living, snarling character.
And somewhere in this asphalt underworld of broken-glass bars, low-life squalor and drug dens, four-year-old Amanda McCready has gone missing without a trace. The cops are out in force, the news crews are flash-bulbing, the neighbours are talking in headlines. But no one can find Amanda. Not her drug-addicted skank mother Helene (Amy Ryan). Not even the Crimes Against Children taskforce led by police chief Jack Doyle (Morgan Freeman) and explosive detective Remy Bressant (Ed Harris). Cue a knock on the door of Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck), a baby-faced local private investigator who works with his girlfriend (Michelle Monaghan) to find missing-persons in the dark corners of Boston.
Only an older brother would have cast Casey Affleck as Patrick Kenzie. But following his startling turn in The Assassination of Jesse James, Affleck concretes himself the most interesting and curious leading man in Hollywood. Mumbling through a thick, strangled street-accent, he’s a reluctant mix of taut vulnerability and surly cool. He’s also a compelling, unpredictable screen presence, anchoring his scenes effortlessly against bigger, tastier alpha males. Pushed too hard, that slo-mo youthful face snaps out fast, angry bursts of four-letter violence in the kind of intense, sustained scenes of salty dialogue that his brother relishes behind the camera.
As a director, Affleck can handle action play-outs: a tense house-invasion sees him crank between prickly suspense and frantic confusion with jarring effectiveness. But verbal set-pieces are Affleck’s real game, his camera probing intently into the faces of his cast. And what a cast. If Affleck can nail place, he can nail people too, trading Mystic River’s blunderbuss thesping for superbly detailed, focused performances. Gone Baby Gone cleverly absorbs Morgan Freeman’s fatherly persona, channels Ed Harris’ powderkeg rage and finds Amy Ryan quite sensational as Amanda’s vulgar, needy world’s-worst-mother, stretching a stereotype into three dimensions: health-care hazard, sympathetic victim and underclass villain.
In fact, Ryan could be some clue to how Affleck has chiselled out this dark gem. She and novelist Lehane are regulars for epic TV cop saga The Wire – and Affleck’s movie shares that phenomenon’s fearless ambiguity, grim authenticity, ruthlessly sombre tone and sharp pacing.
The mystery mechanics grind a little at times and the throughline goes limp in the middle, but Gone Baby Gone quietly continues to build when the McCready case seems to have burned out just an hour into the film. False leads, dead ends, dark secrets, hidden motives, smoking guns, thread-bare consciences and nightmarish discoveries all rack up – and Affleck’s neighborhood noir nosedives into a quicksand of ambiguities to become an oh-so-bleak study of moral complexity and human nature. Terrible question marks hang over the characters like nooses and Affleck’s film keeps its blackest, most riveting ethical tumour for the very end.
Back, baby, back. One of the films of the year, an excellent police procedural and a personal triumph for Affleck.
- Certificate: 15
- Director: Ben Affleck
- Starring: Casey Affleck, Ed Harris, Amy Ryan, Michelle Monoghan
- Screenplay: Ben Affleck, Aaron Stockard
- Running time: 124 minutes
SEE THIS IF YOU LIKED…
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Read the orignal article at TotalFilm.