CAPSULE: A young private investigator takes a job of looking for a little girl whose kidnapping has become a media event. This investigation will prove not just to be violent and shocking, it will also raise some complex moral questions. Ben Affleck's first feature film as director turns out to be a much better film than most of the films that he has acted in. This is a strong, well-directed film and the debut of what could be a very promising director. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
In 2003 Clint Eastwood, one of our finest directors, made MYSTIC RIVER, based on a novel by Dennis Lehane. It was set in the Boston area and was a complex story about crime, but more deeply it looked at moral issues. Ben Affleck, an affable but not heavily dramatic actor, is breaking into directing with GONE BABY GONE. (According to the IMDB, he directed a sixteen-minute short with the unlikely title "I Killed My Lesbian Wife, Hung Her on a Meat Hook, and Now I Have a Three-Picture Deal at Disney".) Like MYSTIC RIVER, Affleck's film is based on a novel by Dennis Lehane, also set in Massachusetts, also a crime film with deep moral overtones. Intentionally or not (and it probably is) Affleck is inviting comparison with a top director. That is a fair-sized gamble and it probably pays off. GONE BABY GONE is probably on a par with MYSTIC RIVER or nearly so. Like Clint Eastwood and Robert Redford and a few others, after establishing a career as a popular actor, Affleck may well have much more talent for direction. I have to say that I cannot think of any film that featured Affleck's acting that is as substantial as the film he directed.
Patrick Kenzie (played by Ben's brother Casey Affleck) is a young and inexperienced private detective. He really knows less about being a detective than he does just about his tough Boston neighborhood. The major news story, not just in his neighborhood but through all of Boston, is that three days before the first action of the film a cute little girl of about four years, Amanda McCready (Madeline O'Brien), was kidnapped from her home. The police, led by Chief Jack Doyle (Morgan Freeman) are investigating, but not making much progress. Amanda's Aunt Beatrice (Amy Madigan) wants someone inquiring who knows the neighborhood and the people who would not talk to the police. The first question that piques Kenzie's curiosity is why is it an aunt of the child and not the mother who wants his help. He soon finds that Helene McCready (Amy Ryan) is not the distraught woman she seems in front of the news cameras. Helene is more interested in alcohol and drugs than she is about her daughter Amanda. Her negligence of her daughter borders on the criminal. Amanda may well be better off kidnapped than at home. The trail to discover what has happened to Amanda will lead to several bloody deaths in an ugly low-class neighborhood. Meanwhile the police resent a private investigator, particularly one so inexperienced, "augmenting" their investigation. Also working the case are detectives Remy Bressant (Ed Harris) and Nick Poole (John Ashton).
Where does the film go wrong? I had a problem with the casting of Madeline O'Brien as Amanda, the little girl who was kidnapped. It creates a certain tension in the film that we are concerned for her. But a more average looking girl might have suited the authentic feel that Affleck works so hard to create. She is just a little too cute and a little too blond and a little too perfect. It feels a bit manipulative to have a JonBenét Ramsey in this lower class neighborhood. But what is good about the script and where it does do right by the viewer is that it all culminates in a large moral issue. In spite of the crime and the violence, the point of the film is a moral issue. And novel writer Dennis Lehane and scriptwriters Ben Affleck and Aaron Stockard do not tie it all up with a pretty bow at the end. The film culminates in a moral dilemma. And it is a dilemma. Neither choice seems right and neither choice seems wrong. And a lessor story would have told the viewer what to think. And that would have been what made it a lessor story. Members of my audience were clearly unhappy with the ending. Affleck chose a story that took some chances for a first directorial film.
GONE BABY GONE has a strong feel of authenticity in its view of a lower class Boston neighborhood. It has an intelligent script that respects the viewer's intellect. It is a strong statement that Affleck wants to direct a film better than those in which he has been cast are. I think it was the right move. I rate GONE BABY GONE a high +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 8/10.
Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0452623/
Mark R. Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Copyright 2007 Mark R. Leeper