One of the toughest and most intangible things for a first-time director to capture onscreen is a consistent mood or tone. In his directorial debut, Ben Affleck creates a strong sense of locale that permeates the entire story and becomes its most affecting element. It is familiar turf for Boston native Affleck, and his movie introduces a bleak environment haunted by the spectre of missing and abused children.
“Gone Baby Gone” is set in the working class
They are in over their heads, but Patrick gets a lead immediately by going directly to the people he knew growing up there. The hierarchies and moral inconsistencies of local lowlifes and drug dealers prove challenging for baby-faced Patrick, but he gets a lead right away, while Police Captain Jack Doyle (Morgan Freeman), who himself has lost a child, is stymied.
Doyle then puts the couple in touch with special detectives Remy Bressant (an invigorated Ed Harris) and Nick Poole (John Ashton), who work with Doyle in the Crimes Against Children unit. Proving themselves worthy of the investigation is the first order of business, but all involved understand that time is of the essence.
The screenplay, adapted from Dennis Lehane’s novel by Ben Affleck and Aaron Stockard, examines the complexities of personal ethics and revels in the gray areas. The kidnapped girl’s mother (Amy Ryan) is the model of an unfit parent, a point that the sensationalistic media misses completely. She spends more time drinking than worrying about her missing child, and some of her severely misplaced loyalties are almost unfathomable. Ryan is one of the standout supporting performers in “Gone Baby Gone,” which uses all kinds of local non-actors to lend the proceedings more credibility.
No doubt audiences will be forced to confront their own feelings about individual-versus-community responsibility after viewing this movie. “Gone Baby Gone” will start discussions among friends following the picture that could get quite heated. As the story gets more complicated, all the characters in the movie have tough decisions to make and, at the time they are made, every character is convinced they are doing the right thing.
A tricky blend of a whodunit plot and slippery social issues, the movie never feels even a little forced until the mystery portion gets fairly contrived towards the end. Director Affleck has a lot of explaining to do in the last reel, and although it is handled with proficiency, it is inorganic compared to the rest of the film.
There’s hesitancy on the P.I.’s to get involved in a potentially heartbreaking case like this in the first place. Patrick, played with significant weight by Casey Affleck, is plagued by tough moral choices from the get-go. When he makes a split second decision he cannot live with, tries to atone for it at great expense. His feeling of unease is shared by the audience for the entire film.
The case causes friction between Patrick and Angie, but much of their romantic bond is left unexplored. Perhaps this is the result of wanting to keep the film under two hours, but some more background on them would have been nice. Lehane’s novel is actually the fourth in a series featuring the crime-fighting couple, so I know there is more detail there than was portrayed in the movie.
“Gone Baby Gone” really shines, however, when it’s contrasting the self-righteousness of its characters. Strong convictions often go hand-in-hand with the desire for more money or a better life. You know there’s going to be a lot of moral ambiguity when somebody who’s not directly involved in the kidnapping could be considered the biggest villain in the picture.