Everyone knows that Ben Affleck is not the world's greatest actor, right? This does not come as a surprise to anyone, I hope. Academy Award-winning screenwriter, sure. And he certainly looks like a leading man, no one's denying that, but c'mon, can you name one memorable performance the man has given? Chasing Amy, maybe. His recent turn as doomed Superman actor George Reeves in Hollywoodland was indeed impressive. But other than that? Well, I'll tell ya, other than that doesn't matter anymore. Affleck doesn't have to stand in front of a camera ever again to have a career in Hollywood. Not after his incredible directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone.
Adapted from Dennis Lehane (Mystic River)'s novel, Gone is a grim, harsh slice of blue-collar Boston life, filled with moral characters who make very wrong decisions for what they believe are the very best of reasons.
My father and I were discussing the movie afterward, and he began to talk about right and wrong choices that the characters make, and I had to stop him there. This movie is so grey and ambiguous, I don't think it can be quantified into categories of Right and Wrong. There's Choice A and Choice B, neither of which can be called Right or Wrong, Good or Evil, Black or White. They're simply choices. The movie is filled with good people who are forced to make difficult, gut-wrenching choices, and, if given the same choices, it's hard to know on which side you'd come down.
The movie begins with the abduction of an adorable angel of a little girl, Amanda McCready and the media circus that always accompany such cases. What follows is a dark, grim story filled with the requisite twists and turns every good crime noir has. Private investigators Patrick Kenzie, played with a quiet toughness by Casey Affleck, Ben's younger brother, and his live-in girlfriend Angie Gennaro, played by Michelle Monaghan, are hired by the grief-stricken girl's aunt and uncle to "augment" the police investigation. The younger Affleck, long thought to be the better actor of the two, more than proves his mettle in this film. Kenzie is a local boy, Southie born and raised, and he knows people who will talk to him before they'd talk to the police.
Affleck's slight build and boyish face could have hindered the movie, but Affleck the actor and Affleck the co-writer (Aaron Stockard is the other credited writer) and director make it work. There's a scene early in their investigation at a local dive that Helene, Amanda's coke addict mother, frequents. The patrons, played by Boston-area local actors, aren't too thrilled with Kenzie's line of questioning. After a number of insults and threats, notably toward Angie, Kenzie has had enough. Bristling with rage, he brandishes a gun, pistol whips one guy upside the head with it and he and Angie make their way out of the bar unharmed. The look on Affleck's face during the scene, the way his eyes burned, more than made up for his lack of size. Kenzie was a guy who grew up on the streets of Boston. He knows how to kick your ass, regardless of whether you're half a foot taller and more than 100 pounds heavier.
Amy Ryan is a shoe in for a supporting actress Oscar nomination as Helene McCready, a negligent junkie of a woman whose life consists of booze, coke and occasionally caring for her daughter. There's nothing very likable about this woman, but Ryan portrays her so amazingly, it's hard not to eventually feel at least a twinge of sympathy. Mother of the Year she's not, but that's another aspect of this film, that nobody's perfect. Everyone is flawed. Everyone screws up, which leads back to the idea of choices and living with the consequences.
As Kenzie delves deeper into the muck and mire of South Boston, all the while searching for this missing child, he teams up with the detectives assigned to Amanda's case, Remy Bressant and Nick Poole, played by the ever-impressive Ed Harris and the 2007 Where-has-he-been? award winner, John Ashton (best known for his role as Det. Taggart in the Beverly Hills Cop movies), respectively. Their search quickly leads them to a local drug dealer from whom Helene and her boyfriend apparently stole a large amount of cash. An exchange is brokered, a meeting place arranged, and that's when all hell breaks loose.
Life goes on, after the botched exchange, and time passes. Kenzie moves on to other cases (in particular, the kidnapping of another young child that forces Kenzie into a choice that was really no choice at all, the consequences of which he'll never be free of), but the disappearance of Amanda McCready continues to gnaw at him. He can't shake the feeling that he's missed something. He eventually uncovers a plot not concocted by shadowy, evil men intent on doing harm, but by decent men whose only goal was far from malicious, and maybe even understandable.
Gone Baby Gone is the kind of morally ambiguous movie that garners critical acclaim and Oscar nominations, which it certainly deserves, while floundering at the box office (it took in a mere $6 million over the weekend, while the weaker, sloppily made 30 Days of Night - see review here - led with $16 million). Ben Affleck chose a difficult story to tell with his first film, and he did it with meticulous craftsmanship and a filmmaker's eye. He made a haunting piece of crime noir pulp, infused with an emotional punch to the gut that will leave you reeling. I can't wait to see what he does for an encore.