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By Pete Vonder Haar | October 20, 2007

“Man, those Bostonians are a surly bunch.” – Margaret Mead

Actually, the line is, “Man, those Samoans are a surly bunch.” And actually, that’s not a Mead quote at all, but a Bloom County joke. Whatever the case, it seemed as good an introduction as any for a review of “Gone Baby Gone,” the debut directorial effort from Ben Affleck, who appears to have finally accepted his status as box office poison and graciously turned the Affleck family acting reins over to his younger brother.

Casey Affleck plays Patrick Kenzie, a private detective from the Dorchester area of Boston who specializes in missing person’s cases. He and his partner/girlfriend Angie (Michelle Monaghan) are approached by the uncle and aunt of a missing girl, four-year old Amanda McCready, who disappeared from her home three days hence. They know Patrick to be a local with a knack for getting neighborhood folks to open up, and he takes the case. He obtains grudging assistance from local police captain Jack Doyle (Morgan Freeman) – who has a personal stake in solving the case – and he pairs them up with a couple of detectives (Ed Harris and John Ashton) to put their heads together.

As Patrick digs deeper, the media-friendly trappings surrounding the cute little lost white girl fall away to reveal some uncomfortable truths about everyone involved. Amanda’s mother Helene (Amy Ryan) is trash personified, for starters, with a coke habit and little perceptible concern for her daughter. Undaunted, and with time running out, Patrick continues his investigation.

“Gone Baby Gone” is based on a novel by Dennis “Mystic River” Lehane, so you know the outcome isn’t going to be, how you say, uplifting. We also get inner city Boston in all its weirdly accented squalor. Amanda’s neighborhood is the kind of place where “Jerry Springer” is watched without irony and Will Hunting would’ve gotten an icepick in the neck for that “How do you like those apples” speech. The way Casey Affleck plays Patrick, you can certainly believe him as a product of these streets, and his slight stature makes his aggressive posturing that much more believable.

Movies about children in danger are an easy way for filmmakers to tweak an audience’s emotions, and while Affleck isn’t above rubbing our face in Amanda’s dimples and bangs, he stays admirably grounded in the less sensational aspects of the story. Of course, working with a Lehane story as your blueprint doesn’t hurt. And there’s no moral absolutism here, from Helene’s loathsome personality to the decision Patrick ultimately has to make, everyone is refreshingly human, and it gives the movie added authenticity.

Even so, “Gone Baby Gone” doesn’t always hit all the right notes. I didn’t quite buy Monaghan as a street-smart chick, and if you’re even remotely familiar with Roger Ebert’s Law of Conservation of Characters, well, it won’t be difficult to see who’s manipulating things, whether or not you guess the actual ending. But in the end, Affleck displays a surprisingly sure hand, and “Gone Baby Gone” largely delivers.

And I know I won’t be the only one happy to see John “Det. Taggart” Ashton in a big budget feature again.

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