Amazing, really, how quickly fortunes and perceptions can change in Hollywood. Just a couple of short years ago, Ben Affleck had been reduced to little more than a square-jawed punchline: Gigli, Bennifer, Daredevil. So precipitous was his career nosedive that you half-expected to find him credited as Matt Damon’s stand-in or personal assistant on the latest Bourne picture. Last fall, however, Affleck snagged the Best Actor prize at Venice for his lightly self-mocking turn as washed-up TV star George Reeves in Hollywoodland—easily his best work in years. And now along comes his directorial debut—starring little brother Casey, no less—and there’s not a whiff of vanity or self-importance to be found. Indeed, his rock-solid adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s Gone Baby Gone, with its unerring regional specificity and its bone-weary acting, shows up Clint Eastwood’s wildly overpraised Mystic River as the stale ham sandwich it was. Quietly morose rather than operatically overheated, Affleck’s film won’t likely win any major Oscars, despite featuring the single best performance I’ve seen all year. But it should earn its director something more valuable still: respect.
As Lehane’s fans know, Gone Baby Gone is actually the fourth book in a series centered on a private-dick couple, Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) and Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan). The movie, co-written by Affleck with his friend Aaron Stockard (who actually has been credited as Matt Damon’s assistant!), wisely starts from scratch, offering only a few vague hints regarding the pair’s troubled past. Longtime residents of Boston’s working-class Dorchester neighborhood, Kenzie and Gennaro are hired to investigate the kidnapping of a 4-year-old girl, ostensibly because potential witnesses are more likely to talk to them than to the cops, represented here by officious Chief Jack Doyle (Morgan Freeman) and brutally cynical Detective Remy Bressant (Ed Harris). The deeper they look, however, the murkier things get—and even when the case is “solved” (sooner than you expect, in a way I dare not reveal), uneasy questions linger, as does the film’s all-enveloping sense of moral turpitude.
If it seems like I’m being deliberately cagey about plot details, that’s because Lehane’s story involves a truly wacko twist, one that strains credulity to an almost crippling degree. It’s up to the actors to make this revelation seem remotely plausible, and they collectively do a heroic job, aided by Affleck’s intimate knowledge of his hometown’s geographical and socioeconomic niceties. Casey Affleck, with his frail physique and slightly strangled voice, at first seems an odd choice for Kenzie, who’s meant to be something of a badass; only with hindsight does it become clear how crucial that amalgam of strength and weakness is to the character’s ultimate destination. But Gone Baby Gone’s true MVP is Amy Ryan (HBO’s The Wire), who plays the missing girl’s spectacularly unfit mother—a coked-up disaster in stiletto heels. It’s a truly bracing performance, equal parts blithe disregard and desperate need; Ryan somehow manages to make the woman at once Gorgon-level monstrous and indelibly human, which is precisely what’s required if the movie’s devastating final scene is going to make any emotional sense.
It’s that final scene, more than anything else, that makes Gone Baby Gone feel like a genuine tragedy, and Ben Affleck deserves enormous credit for remaining faithful to Lehane’s uncompromisingly bleak vision. I do find it unfortunate that arriving at this powerful moment necessitated such a preposterous series of events—in the end, it’s just hard to buy that certain people would do the things we discover they’ve done, however honorable their intentions. And yet few recent American movies have been so willing to question the value of rectitude, to suggest that right and wrong can sometimes be nearly impossible to determine. Gone Baby Gone ends not in a hailstorm of bullets or a volley of shouted recriminations, but with the almost offhand shrug of a man coming face to face with the consequences of a decision he’s made—a decision in which he chose to uphold every standard of justice this country was founded upon. To borrow a phrase from Spike Lee, he did the right thing. And he now beholds a private hell of his own making. Maybe Affleck can relate.
Gone Baby Gone
Casey Affleck, Michelle Monaghan, Ed Harris, Morgan Freeman, Amy Ryan
Directed by Ben Affleck