Gone Baby Gone

Ben Affleck’s career may be floundering onscreen, but the Boston native has proven surprisingly adept behind the camera. His directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone, is an engrossing detective thriller that displays a nuance he lacks as an actor.

 
 


R, 114 minutes

Ben Affleck’s career may be floundering onscreen, but the Boston native has proven surprisingly adept behind the camera. His directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone, is an engrossing detective thriller that displays a nuance he lacks as an actor.
 
Affleck bounded onto the national scene with his childhood buddy Matt Damon when the two wrote and starred in the 1997 hit Good Will Hunting. Writing from the refuge of their hometown, the loving homage to Boston provided a launching point for their cinematic pursuits. The formerly struggling actors won an Oscar for their screenplay and the opportunity to play a number of high-profile roles.
 
But as Damon’s acting career has soared, Affleck has repeatedly starred in films that have been panned by critics and avoided by moviegoers. An impressive antagonist in films like Dazed and Confused and Mallrats, he has had trouble settling into the role of leading man. In missteps from Pearl Harbor to Jersey Girl, Affleck has been at times cocky, stiff, and self-conscious.
 
But now, ten years after Good Will Hunting, Affleck has come back home. Going behind the camera to direct, Affleck has shown that his skills are ample but distinct from his classic all-American looks.
 
An adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s novel of the same name, Gone Baby Gone is a classic potboiler pitting the detached logic of the police against familial loyalty. Set in deep South Boston, the film follows the sort of child abduction that wracks the nation periodically. Left alone briefly, 4-year-old Amanda McCready is stolen out of her bedroom, and the entire nation is desperate to find her.
 
After private detective Patrick (Casey Affleck) and his girlfriend Angela (Michelle Monaghan) watch the missing-child reports on television, Amanda’s aunt and uncle approach them to augment the investigation. Their apprehensions about taking on the case are soon realized, but by then it is too late to pull out.
 
Navigating between their violent street-thug friends and foes and Boston’s overprotective police department, the couple is soon irretrievably linked to Amanda’s disappearance. As Patrick struggles to solve the case and return to normal life, the film keeps the audience in a tense maze of misleading turns and traps.
 
The younger Affleck displays a vulnerability and toughness as Patrick that keeps Gone Baby Gone together, even as the film loses its way toward the end, ultimately sacrificing its narrative to the pressures of audience guesswork.
 
Affleck has peppered his depiction of local Boston with characters and faces that are not often seen on film. He pays special attention to the accents and attire of his characters, with standout depictions from Ed Harris, Titus Welliver, and Amy Madigan.
 
But it is Amy Ryan, with her portrayal of Amanda’s poor single mother, who runs away with the film. Ms. Ryan, best known for her work on Broadway and HBO’s The Wire, presents a woman with deep emotions disguised by years of neglect. She manages to strike a tenuous balance between masochism and sympathy as a drug user and alcoholic mother who mistreated her daughter but is genuinely destroyed by her disappearance.
 
A cast of non-professional actors also add an element of realism to the film, with Morgan Freeman presenting the only casting misstep as police captain Jack Doyle. The seasoned star is a normally reliable screen presence, but with no discernable Boston accent, he seems an odd choice to play the Irish department head — his deep baritone and instant gravitas teeter on the brink of shtick.
 
That said, the younger Affleck’s performance has a subtlety and ease that carries the film. By putting himself behind the camera, the older Affleck has made room for the nuance of this story to come to the surface. Though he might have limitations as an actor, Affleck has returned to a place that he knows intimately to display as-yet unseen skills that can be well-used elsewhere.
 


Meghan Keane is a film critic for the New York Sun.

 
Image © 2007 Miramax Films

By

Joanna Bogle is a writer, biographer, and historian. She relishes the new translation of the Mass, the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, her own excellent local Catholic parish, traditional hymns (especially, perhaps, Anglican ones) rain, good literature, sleep, the English coast, Autumn, buttered toast, and a number of other things too precious and important to list here. Visit her blog.

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