Gone Baby Gone marks the feature directing debut of Ben Affleck, yet for the big filmmaking splash of a well-known actor--and Oscar-winning screenwriter, to boot--Miramax has not pushed his name in the marketing campaign. Upon watching the film, the decision doesn't feel quite so curious, for with this smart and challenging adaptation of Dennis Lehane's novel, it's best to let the work speak for itself on its own terms.
From frame one and the delivery of the first voice-over lines, Affleck shows his skill by quickly and adeptly establishing a unique sense of place and atmosphere. Everything in this view of Boston feels lived-in, from the homes to the clothing, but not in the run-down sense but just that, lived-in, and hence comfortable--an authentic working class milieu that isn't seen much at all in film. That sense of comfort also comes through in the relationship between the two lead characters Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) and Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan). Partners as private investigators and in life, the latter fact is efficiently communicated through the simple gesture of him putting his arm around her in their first scene, with none of the strained and lazy expository dialogue. The chemistry between the two actors really helps sell that as theirs is a nice, natural, understated rapport, again reflecting the idea of comfort; one can sense the two been together for a while and are comfortable with each other in business and personally.
Such a solid relationship is, of course, built to to be tested, and Patrick and Angie are faced with a professional challenge when they're hired to investigate the disappearance of four-year-old Amanda McCready (Madeline O'Brien) by the child's aunt (Amy Madigan) and uncle (Titus Welliver). Such a high-profile case, with its constant media glare and additional investigative obstacles such as the not-always-cooperative police already on the case and the neglectful lifestyle of the girl's mother Helene (Amy Ryan), proves to be a task that the fairly unseasoned pair may not be completely equipped to handle--particularly Patrick, for whom the case becomes some sort of personal mission beyond simply doing his job. In fact, the title may not so much reflect young Amanda than Patrick, who becomes more and more lost in the case--not so much in the mere search for a solution, but as a means of proving his own adequacy at his chosen line of work, and perhaps most importantly as a way to validate his own strictly held sense of right and wrong.
Despite the plot hook, Gone Baby Gone is more of a character and moral study than a standard thriller, and as such the film is rather talky and patient. This is not to say that the mystery is not involving; there are some great moments of tension, such as a couple of chilling nighttime set pieces. But patience is rewarded in the end not so much in the resolution of the mystery plot or any more conventional narrative satisfactions; perhaps the pace is detrimental in slam-bang terms, but it pays off in terms of developing the more pressing, headier, general concern of Patrick's psychology and the many forces and conflicting ideologies in this way--which, as director Affleck and co-scripter Aaron Stockard are careful to paint, are just as valid, if not more so, than those of our hero.
What makes the resulting, complex questions play out so well and make them so thought-provoking are the actors. Solid turns from reliable veterans such as Morgan Freeman (as an esteemed police captain) and Ed Harris (as a relentless detective) are expected and indeed delivered, but the fresher faces are the ones given the bigger chance to shine, and they make the most of the opportunity. Monaghan continues her steady rise with this fairly small but strong part, shouldering a key emotional monologue with kick-in-gut emotional precision. Between this and his rather spectacular work in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Casey Affleck is having quite the revelatory season; as in the other film, he excels with a character who is constantly underestimated but finds the steely reserves he himself didn't know were there--in so doing showing how powerful and dangerous he can be. As excellent as the whole ensemble is, one performer stands out from the rest, and that is Ryan; Helene could have easily been a trashy cliché, and while Ryan doesn't shy away from her more repellent sides, she believably plays these all too human qualities in a way that will most certainly be recognizable to viewers in their real lives.
That overall sense of authenticity makes the Gone Baby Gone cut all the more deep plus adds greater resonance to its ultimate moral quandary: if the "right" decision is truly the "best" decision. Director Affleck doesn't offer anything approaching easy answers, leaving the film on a note of ambiguity that is all the more unsettling for how real it is--for as in life, after one makes the choice, one must then live with what the decision entails, for better or for worse.