People aren’t who they seem in Gone Baby Gone, and that goes for its makers as well. Ben Affleck as a capable director? His kid brother Casey Affleck as an honest-to-goodness leading man? Topsy-turvy to be sure, though the elder Affleck’s strong showing in this, his maiden directorial outing, is aided by sturdy source material—the fourth Kenzie-Gennaro novel by Mystic River author Dennis Lehane, about a young girl abducted in the blue-collar Dorchester section of Boston—that’s set in a milieu the Massachusetts native intimately understands. Working with cinematographer John Toll, Affleck (who also co-wrote the script with Aaron Stockard) offers too many sweeping aerial panoramas set to melodramatic music, and his depiction of the story’s hanging-out-on-the-stoop neighborhood features a handful of borderline-condescending snapshots of weird-looking citizens. Yet despite a somewhat predictable preference for giving each of his actors a big, showy speech, he otherwise generally displays remarkable discipline and tact in guiding his tale, in which four-year-old Amanda (Madeline O’Brien) goes missing and the girl’s aunt (Amy Madigan) hires local private investigator Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) and his partner/girlfriend Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan, bringing depth to an underwritten character) to complement the police investigation by snooping about their hometown community.
Gone Baby Gone‘s surprises are somewhat ruined by a familiar casting blunder—namely, the use of A-list thesps (including Ed Harris and Morgan Freeman) for supposedly peripheral parts—but its prickly quandaries remain vigorous, as does Affleck’s portrait of a fetid urban landscape where innocence is not only spoiled on a daily basis, but by the very people charged with its protection. Amanda’s neglectful mother Helene (a phenomenal Amy Ryan) is a “coke-hole” and drug mule, a pair of shifty detectives (Harris and John Ashton) are fond of stretching the law’s boundaries, the squad chief (Freeman) is a righteous crusader with his own unresolved demons, and roughnecks, floozies, and cursing children line the streets. Communal foulness abounds, seemingly seeping into the asphalt streets’ cracks. There’s little hope for justice or even decency in this squalid place, and Affleck’s film eventually laces its routine police procedural plot machinations with a taut and terrifying atmosphere of enveloping confusion, one in which the solutions to the hazards posed by such a world are insufficient, and in fact are often just as problematic as the threats themselves.
The somewhat slight Casey initially seems an ill-fitting choice for Kenzie, at least until he opens his mouth in response to barroom threats and unleashes a stream of take-no-shit profanities, and then follows up that outburst with a scene-ending chuckle to himself that radiates both amazement and amusement at his demonstration of tough-guy bravado. He’s a 31-year-old boy trying to prove, to himself and others, that he’s a man, and Casey’s external meekness has the effect of giving Kenzie a gentleness that’s at tense odds with the surrounding nastiness as well as his own dawning certainty that, as Harris’s cop puts it, “You gotta take a side.” Unlike Kenzie’s manipulation of the hesitant-to-take-the-case Gennaro with a sweet photo of Amanda, director Ben doesn’t unduly exploit his subject matter for cheap thrills or sentiment, so focused is he on capturing a sense of the selfish, brutal, hateful inner workings of his environment. Better still, he remains committed to Lehane’s climax’s powerhouse, irreconcilable moral dilemma, leaving Kenzie, and the audience, with no comforting answers other than that, while we can never be fully certain our choices are the correct ones, they are always, for better or worse, ultimately our own responsibility.