Gone Baby Gone (United States, 2007)
Gone Baby Gone is powerful stuff - a movie that derives its plot twists from moral conundrums rather than from narrative sleight of hand. The best mystery novels are the ones that use the genre as a stepping-off point for developing characters and examining issues. First-time director Ben Affleck has successfully captured the essence of a written mystery on the screen. The production engages viewers not only on an emotional level but on an intellectual one. As the onion-like layers of the story are peeled away to reveal new ethical dilemmas that force the lead character to question what truly is "right," we are invited to answer those questions alongside him then evaluate whether the consequences of his choices justify the decisions he made. It's a rare motion picture that provides such an uncompromising perspective of what is right and what is moral.
Affleck, perhaps deciding that the future looks better behind the camera than in front of it, makes a debut that could only be called auspicious. This is a mature film, and Affleck was clearly determined the use every ounce of the skill he possesses to do it right (Gone Baby Gone is his favorite book). It helps to start with solid source material, and the novel is as complex and intriguing as another Dennis Lehane effort, Mystic River, which was turned into a memorable movie not so long ago by actor-turned-director Clint Eastwood.
As the film opens, we are introduced to the boyfriend/girlfriend private investigator team of Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) and Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan). They are approached by Lionel and Beatrice McCready (Titus Welliver and Amy Madigan), whose young niece, Amanda (Madeline O'Brien), has been kidnapped. Patrick and Angie reluctantly take the case, only to be faced by a wall of opposition comprised of the girl's bitter, drug-addicted mother, Helene (Amy Ryan); the police chief, Jack Doyle (Morgan Freeman); and the two cops working the case, Remy Bressant (Ed Harris) and Nick Poole (John Ashton). It doesn't take long before Patrick and Angie discover a critical clue but their best efforts cannot prevent the tragedies that force them both to re-consider key life values.
To discuss the dilemmas faced by Patrick and Angie would be to reveal too much of the plot. Suffice it to say they are powerful and divisive. It's easy to see both sides of the arguments. The film also doesn't back away from showing consequences, and the phrase "no good deed goes unpunished" comes to mind more than once. The film's final scene points to a possible future beyond the end credits that makes one feel nothing but sympathy for one of the characters sitting on that sofa at the end.
Since this is a mystery/thriller, it should come as no surprise to learn that the film does not proceed in a straightforward manner. Gone Baby Gone employs twists and misdirection, some of which is predictable and some of which is not. Those paying attention will not experience a big "eureka!" moment (there is one, but it is heavily foreshadowed), but the plot is serpentine enough to keep the viewer involved and uncertain of what the next corner will reveal. The film is comprised of three distinct acts. The first two are only tangentially related but the third one dovetails with what has preceded it and ties everything together.
I haven't seen enough of Casey Affleck to make an assessment of his range an actor. As in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, his approach is low-key even in high intensity scenes. My impression is that he's more of a character actor than a lead, but he is effective as Patrick. This isn't an Oscar-worthy performance but neither is it a problem. Likewise, Michelle Monaghan's portrayal of Angie is workmanlike. The best performances come from (not unexpectedly) Morgan Freeman, Ed Harris, and (perhaps unexpectedly) Amy Ryan. All three get maximum value out of their screen time. Ryan, playing Amanda's mother, is especially noteworthy. She humanizes a vile person, showing vulnerability alongside a startling streak of neglect and self-centeredness. Freeman plays someone whose nobility may be a little tarnished and Harris gets to explore a wide range of traits.
With his first feature, Affleck has made an indelible mark on the fall 2007 movie season. He may have taken audiences by surprise this time, but he will be watched in the future. The strength of the film's subject matter and the intelligence and perceptiveness with which it is approached make this not merely an October diversion but a genuine Oscar contender. It's not an easy film because it challenges us and, while the final scene offers closure, it does so with a side dish of painful ambiguity. Gone Baby Gone has a legitimate shot for placement on my end-of-the-year list of 2007's Top 10 films.
Gone Baby Gone (United States, 2007)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Screenplay: Ben Affleck & Aaron Stockard, based on the novel by Dennis Lehane
Cinematography: John Toll
Music: Harry Gregson-Williams