October 25, 2007

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Gone Baby Gone (R)
A private investigator takes to the shady corners of Dorchester to look for a missing little girl in Gone Baby Gone, an Affleckful movie with Ben in the director’s chair and brother Casey in the spotlight.

Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) is a young-looking PI who is known for his people-finding skills. When little Amanda McCready (Madeline O’Brien) goes missing, her aunt Bea (Amy Madigan) comes to Patrick and his partner Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan) to find her. Amanda’s mother, Helene (Amy Ryan), is the sister of Bea’s husband Lionel (Titus Welliver). While Lionel seems to have life together, Helene (who lives in an apartment in the same building as her brother and sister-in-law) is a mess. She leaves Angie at home alone at night while she goes to a dive bar to drink and do drugs. This is perhaps better than in the day, when Helene sometimes brings Amanda with her to the bar. Patrick and Angie are able to find this information out during their first day on the case along with the possibility that Helene was at this bar (not at a neighbor’s watching TV, as she’s told the TV reporters camped on her street) on the night Amanda disappeared. The police leading the investigation — including detectives Nick Poole (John Ashton) and Remy Bressant (Ed Harris) — had been looking at local sex offenders for the crime. The abduction is particularly important for the department because police higher-up Jack Doyle (Morgan Freeman) made protecting children his life’s work after the death of his daughter.

Working uneasily together, the police and Patrick and Angie dig in to Helene’s minor role in the local drug trade. Could her daughter’s abduction be the result of her mother’s illegal behavior?

At a certain point in this movie, you think you’ve solved it — or at least, that you’ve reached the movie’s rather simplistic conclusion about this crime. How is the movie going to fill the next hour, I thought at about the halfway point. Of course, there was more to it and to the central characters led by Patrick than I had been lulled into believing. I was impressed with how the movie paced itself. Just as I felt a weakening — highlighted by a slightly too long stretch of narration — the movie sort of changed direction and revved back up again. It’s hard to tell how much of this is from the movie’s source material (a Dennis Lehane novel) and how much is from Ben Affleck’s impressive directing abilities. Affleck also co-wrote the screenplay, which, along with his directing, helps to give the movie more heft than simply the longer episode of Law & Order: CSI the movie easily could have been.

The strong story is made even stronger by its setting. This part of Dorchester is wonderfully harsh — teeth are bared at all times by everybody. In a throwaway scene, Patrick is driving down a neighborhood street and waves a slow-moving kid on a bicycle out of his way. The kid’s answer is a particularly colorful statement regarding Patrick’s mother. Gritty doesn’t begin to describe it — this town is grimy, filthy even — from Helene’s sink of overflowing dirty dishes to a house where one search for a missing child takes place. Some of this — what might be called in the area “chaaaracta” — makes for moments of dark levity — like the kid on the bike. But some of the scenes are turn-your-head-away brutal (and some of those scenes, the truly hard to watch ones, involve a child who is or might be in danger).

This movie isn’t as bloody as The Departed but it’s far darker. When it’s done showing us the worst in the world, it turns its attentions to the internal terrains of the characters. What makes all this bearable are the performances. Morgan Freeman, Ed Harris, Michelle Monaghan and (especially) Casey Affleck — they all wear these characters so well you thoroughly forget the famous person inside them. Affleck is almost like Humphrey Bogart in the way that his physical appearance doesn’t make him a natural leading man. Bogart took rugged to a nearly thuggish extreme. Affleck looks very young (a comment made about his character as well), younger than his 32 years. He also looks slight. The movie uses this, regularly having assorted bigger or more dangerous men menace Patrick. But Patrick, like Affleck, hides a deep well of strength and a convincing ability to menace back. A-

Rated R for violence, drug content and pervasive language. Directed by Ben Affleck and written by Affleck and Aaron Stockard (from a novel by Dennis Lehane), Gone Baby Gone is an hour and 55 minutes long and is distributed by Miramax Films.