I think we’ve finally sorted out who’s the actor and who’s the director in the Affleck family. Over the last few years, Ben Affleck has been one of the most criticized men in front of the camera in Hollywood. Behind the camera however, Gone Baby Gone is only a small hint of what the man is capable of. Although he has given one or two good performances through is acting career, his effort in helming this new noir thriller is his greatest achievement so far. Gone Baby Gone is an intelligent, complex, and unpredictable noir thriller and if not for a spotty beginning, would be an instant American crime classic.
Based on the novel by Dennis Lehane, Gone Baby Gone is centered around the possible kidnapping of a little girl named Amanda McCready. Amanda is the daughter of her drug addicted mother Helene (Amy Ryan, 2005’s Capote). In front of a camera Helene seems devastated by her daughter’s disappearance but as we get to know her we wonder how much she cares about Amanda, if at all. It’s her brother Lionel (Titus Welliver, 2005’s Assault on Precinct 13) and his wife Beatrice (Amy Madigan) who decide to take action. They get involved with the police as much as possible and to improve their chances they go to a team of private detectives.
Those private detectives are actually a couple: Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck, Ocean’s Thirteen) and Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan, The Heartbreak Kid). Lionel and Beatrice want to hire Patrick and Angie and although the two don’t specialize in kidnapping cases, they decide to give it a try. Although Jack Doyle (Morgan Freeman), a police chief who specializes in child abduction cases, does not approve of this action, he lets Patrick and Angie work with two of the detectives on the case: Remy Bressant (Ed Harris) and Nick Poole (John Ashton, 1999’s Instinct). The two teams together work to solve the kidnapping.
The script by Ben Affleck and Aaron Stockard is very well structured. If there’s one problem with it, the beginning of the film doesn’t establish Gone Baby Gone as anything original. The beginning is riddled with gratuitously profane dialogue and it depicts Boston as a rotten city filled with ugly and rude people. Once the characters stop running their mouth, things settle down and become more focused on the storyline and the two complex characters in Patrick and Angie. What really separates Gone Baby Gone from average to nearly great are a couple of brilliant twists as the film hits the home stretch. With these twists you realize that an unnecessary subplot becomes an absolutely essential one and without it the film would not have worked at all. Not only that but it makes Ed Harris’ Remy one of the most interesting supporting characters of this Oscar season.
As for Ben’s little brother Casey, he is remarkable here as the film’s lead. He doesn’t let veterans like Harris and Morgan Freeman steal any scenes away from him, although they do their best to try. Casey owns the movie from the beginning and he presents his performance with a style that perfectly suits the noir genre. He shows so many emotional layers as a man not giving up on finding the truth and trying to do the right thing. His performance is the biggest factor that leads to one of the most dramatically tense finales of the year. By the end he is left with an impossible choice that must be made and the last scene director Affleck leaves us with is a powerful and very fitting one; letting us wonder, as well as Patrick, if things will turn out alright and if he made the right choice.
To commend Casey’s performance even more, Ed Harris is just terrific as Detective Bressant. There’s a scene with him and Patrick after Patrick has just gone through the most difficult time in his life and Bressant tries to convince him he did the right thing with an anecdote. This scene is the epicenter of the script and it is executed to perfection by all involved. Michelle Monaghan means well as Angie but she stands in Casey’s shadow the whole time, not being able to contribute to much of anything. It seems like everything Patrick figures out, he could of done without Angie. There are only a handful of scenes with Morgan Freeman but they are memorable ones. He is convincing as a man who has lost a child himself and is determined not to let anything happen again. Amy Ryan’s great performance as Helen McCready should also be noted. Her character is everything when it comes to the decision Patrick must make at the end of the film.
Gone Baby Gone is a terrific followup to last week’s surprising crime drama We Own the Night. Note this film in the history of cinema. Not because it’s great, it’s not quite on that level, but because both of the Affleck brothers seem to have found their place in Hollywood and coincidently they did it in the same picture. It should be safe to predict that this is the film that will elevate Casey to stardom and it is also the film that will gain Ben some much needed, and now deserved, respect.