Gone Baby Gone (***)

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Strange that Ben Affleck, he of countless bad movies and tabloid headlines, has created such a focused and engrossing motion picture. Yes, Ben Affleck, the star of Gigli, Daredevil and Paycheck, 3 of the worst films of 2003, makes his directorial debut with Gone Baby Gone, a character-driven crime movie, based upon the novel by Dennis Lehane. Perhaps his terrific performance in Hollywoodland as troubled “Superman” actor George Reeves was not just a fluke, but instead a sign that Affleck’s going to try to make good movies again (though his work in 2006’s awful Smokin’ Aces might disprove that theory.)The film stars Casey Affleck (yes, Ben’s younger brother) and Michelle Monaghan as Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro, a boyfriend and girlfriend detective team located in Boston. As the story opens, four-year old Amanda McCready has been kidnapped, and the media circus has already enveloped a local neighborhood. One morning, Patrick is awakened by the girl’s aunt and uncle (Amy Madigan and Titus Welliver), who ask if he and Angie will take the case (they specialize in missing persons cases). They take the case, though Angie has her reservations, and before too long are plunged neck-deep in a labyrinthine plot of double-crosses, drug deals, corruption, guilt and other classic elements that this genre requires.One of the film’s strongest assets is its cast, probably due to his clout, Affleck was able to gather a large group of talent. Who would have thought that Casey Affleck, of all people, would make a good lead in a detective film? Prior to this film, most audiences (including myself) best remember Affleck as the lovable doofus in supporting roles in such films as Ocean’s 12 and Good Will Hunting. Ben probably sensed that his kid brother could pull off a big role, and boy, was he right. One strength of Casey’s performance is his use of body language, just watch the early scene where arranges his living room like a detective office, and then awkwardly shifts the chairs, sits down, notices that no one else is sitting, then quickly stands up and moves the chair. One theme of Gone Baby Gone could in fact be how the characters, the men especially, use body language to communicate their authority, like a bunch of proud peacocks. Casey Affleck also creates a screen presence that I’ve never seen in this actor before, this is the first performance where I’ve really noticed him as an actor.I wish I could say the same for Michelle Monaghan as Angie, but she never gets out of the supportive girlfriend character, and doesn’t really contribute anything to the film. Morgan Freeman appears in a few scenes as Jack Doyle, the Boston police captain in charge of the missing children division. His performance is stellar if not amazing. Amy Madigan and Titus Welliver are well-cast as the girl’s aunt and uncle, while Amy Ryan (who you may remember from the great HBO show “The Wire”) is a revelation as Amanda’s drug-addicted mother. Ryan literally disappears into the role (it didn’t occur to me who she was until about three hours after I’d seen the movie).Ed Harris, that great character actor, is exceptional as Detective Remy Bressant, and I’ll be astonished if it doesn’t get some award-season recognition (the same goes with Amy Ryan). A big part of the success of Harris’ performance has to go to cinematographer John Toll, who bathes Harris’ face in a haunting mix of shadow and light, which helps add to the character’s questionable ethics. It was great to see John Ashton as his partner, Detective Nick Poole, I had no idea he was still around.Ben Affleck has also cast the film with many locals of the Boston area, which helps make the film feel incredibly authentic. Just as the Italian directors Pasolini and Fellini would fill their films with faces full of character, wrinkles, scabs, flaws and other non-traditional features, Affleck has followed suite with his extras (yes, I’m thinking of the patrons in the bar scene while I write this review, too). Affleck and his crew has captured the feel and look of Boston perfectly (not too surprisingly, since this is Affleck’s hometown).If I have one quibble with the film, it’s in the narration by Casey Affleck. Now, film narration can be a powerful tool (the most recent example of a great film narration would probably be John Hurt’s delicious narration for Perfume: The Story of a Murderer), it needs to add something to the film’s texture in order to work. In opening of this film, Patrick Kenzie talks about how rough and tough it is to grow up in Boston, but it just feels redundant because John Toll’s evocative cinematography does a much better job at describing this feeling than the narration does.The film also includes a death scene that seems horribly, terribly real.  This is not like most Hollywood death scenes, where someone gets shot and dies, but this looks like the way it would really happen.  Affleck has captured screen violence in this scene like the way Peckinpah did in The Wild Bunch.  Gone Baby Gone is a strong movie, maybe not up there with Lehane’s other book-turned-into-movie Mystic River, but worth checking out.

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