*Gone Baby Gone (R)
Cinemark 16, Tinseltown
Quick: Name the actor-turned-director who took an acclaimed Dennis Lehane novel and nailed both its distinctive Boston atmosphere and its exploration of impossible moral choices. Hint: It's not Clint Eastwood.
Even though Eastwood's 2003 adaptation of Lehane's Boston-based Mystic River was critically revered, and even though you may snicker at the notion of Ben Affleck Ha, ha, Gigli! Ha, ha, Bennifer! turning into a serious filmmaker, the dude does a lot of things right in his riveting adaptation of Lehane's Gone Baby Gone. The Boston native gathers a terrific cast and crafts a portrait of its world as riveting as it is heartbreaking.
The plot launches with the disappearance of 4-year-old Amanda McCready (Madeline O'Brien) from her bedroom in the neighborhood of Dorchester. Police and media are all over the story of panicked mother Helene (Amy Ryan), but our story actually follows Helene's brother Lionel (Titus Welliver) and sister-in-law Bea (Amy Madigan), who hire private investigator Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) to help in the case.
Patrick's native sense of the neighborhood allows him to make headway, discovering Helene's nasty habits may have provided a motive for Amanda's disappearance. And the more Patrick and his girlfriend/business associate Angie (Michelle Monaghan) dig into the case, the less likely it becomes that they will emerge unscathed.
From virtually the opening shot, Affleck makes it clear how firmly he's going to ground this story in its sense of place. He presents a parade of background figures whose less-than-Hollywood-beautiful faces and bodies show the consequences of hard living. He allows them to speak not just with a recognizable accent, but in the language of a lower-class neighborhood with pre-teen kids on bikes shouting out "fk your muthah." Unlike so many literary adaptations that focus almost entirely on plot, Gone Baby Gone demonstrates an intrinsic understanding that the setting is as fundamental a part of the story as any of the characters.
The characters themselves don't exactly suck, either. Casey Affleck nails the combination of quick mind and street-smarts; Welliver does terrific work as a blue-collar guy whose demons make him want to be a guardian angel; Morgan Freeman takes a break from conveying noble gravitas in his role as an emotionally wounded cop. The most remarkable performance comes from Ryan, who invests the weak, pathetic Helene with a fascinating humanity.
Like Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone deals with the long-range consequences of children mistreated. Lehane addresses not just the kids but the adults whose "won't someone please think of the children" decisions aren't always as simple as they appear. Affleck the auteur does an impressive job of portraying people making the wrong choice for the right reason, because their world doesn't offer many alternatives that are obviously "right."
It takes a while for Gone Baby Gone to reach those devastating conclusions; along the way it becomes a fairly straightforward crime procedural. But any directing blunders Affleck may have committed feel forgivable after the staggering impact of his final shot. There's both familiarity and deep sadness the kind that comes from someone talking about his own backyard.