I immediately fell in love with Gone Baby Gone, Ben Affleck’s directorial debut, the first time I saw it in theatres in 2007. I’ve seen it several times since, and after watching it again a few months ago, I was surprised to realize I’d never written about the film on my site!
The film, adapted by Ben Affleck and Aaron Stockard from the novel by Dennis Lehane, is set in Dorchester (a neighborhood of Boston). A young private eye couple, Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) and his girlfriend, Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan) are hired to investigate the disappearance of a young girl, Amanda McCready. The first two-thirds of the film covers their investigation over the next several days, looking for Amanda. Patrick and Angie eventually learn that Amanda’s mother, Helene (Amy Ryan), was involved in an attempt to scam drug money from a local drug lord named Cheese. Working with the police detectives assigned to the case, Remy Bressant (Ed Harris) and Nick Poole (John Ashton), Patrick and Angie set up up a meeting to trade the stolen money for the kidnapped Amanda. But the deal goes badly, and the panicked criminals throw Amanda into the water, where she apparently drowns.
That feels like the end of the story, but in fact it’s all just set-up for the film’s third act, in which Patrick and Angie are faced with an impossible moral dilemma.
I absolutely adore this film. It’s extremely well-made. The story by Dennis Lehane is extraordinarily compelling, and Ben Affleck and Aaron Stockard have crafted a phenomenal adaptation, one that is sharp in all the right ways. I can’t believe that this film is the work of a first-time director, as Gone Baby Gone looks like it was crafted by someone extremely confident in their abilities. The movie is tense from start to finish, and Mr. Affleck brings a rich emotional depth and a taut narrative intensity to the whole film, both the scenes of action and violence and the scenes of conversation. The film is gorgeous, with a rich color palette and beautifully composed shots. More than that, the story is put together with exquisite skill, as Mr. Affleck takes us through both a complex narrative and a deeply-felt, emotionally harrowing journey without ever losing complete control over his audience, what we are thinking and feeling. And then, at the end, he leaves us to ponder the film’s ending and to make our own decisions, rather than directing us to what he wants us to think. I’ll talk more about the film’s powerhouse of an ending in a moment, but for now I’ll just say that it couldn’t have been pulled off by anything less than an exceptional director. Gone Baby Gone was a bold announcement of Mr. Affleck’s skill as a director, and while I have also enjoyed The Town (click here for my review) and especially Argo (click here for my review) , I think Gone Baby Gone is his best film so far.
The movie is positively drenched in the atmosphere of Boston, and Mr. Affleck’s use of locations in Boston and many local faces — both actors and non-professional people off the street — gives the movie a richness that you just couldn’t fake. All of the actors do a great job with their often-times thick Boston accents, and the actors who are putting that on mesh well with the actors who really do speak that way.
Ben Affleck gave his brother Casey the gift of a juicy leading-man role, and Casey Affleck rises to the occasion with an extraordinary performance. I have never seen Casey Affleck be better on film than he is here in Gone Baby Gone, and every time I watch this movie I wonder why Casey Affleck isn’t starring in dozens of other great movies just like this one. Casey brings such humanity to the role of Patrick. He’s the lead of the movie, but Casey’s depiction of Patrick is so unique, so unlike any other leading-man performance that I can think of. Patrick is heroic, but he’s also a very human guy. He talks tough but we can see that he gets scared in the early scene when he and Angie get into trouble in a Dorchester bar, asking the wrong questions to a bunch of toughs who don’t want to answer any questions. I adore Casey’s narration that comes in and out over the course of the film. The combination of the exquisite writing with Casey’s under-played, quiet, almost mumbling delivery combine to create a powerful, naturalistic effect. The moment, late in the film, in which we hear Patrick tell us in voice-over that he knows that, when Angie doesn’t think he is home, he can hear her cry, breaks my heart every time I hear that line. (It’s getting me a little misty, just thinking about it now, truth be told!) It’s an extraordinary performance.
The rest of the ensemble is also fantastic. It’s hard to believe what a great cast Ben Affleck was able to assemble. The one-two punch of this film and 2005’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang caused me to forever fall in love with Michelle Monaghan. Like Casey Affleck, I wish she was in lots more movies as good as this one, where she could really show us how great an actress she is, on top of being an exceptionally beautiful young woman. Angie is an enigmatic character in Gone Baby Gone. We’re in Patrick’s head, but we don’t ever know quite what Angie is thinking (and the film wisely avoids any Hollywood monologue type of scenes in which the character would pour out her heart to the audience). When she condemns Patrick’s decision at the end of the film, it’s a wrenching moment, and Ms. Monaghan sells it completely. She tells us so much about Angie through small looks, and her body language, little moments throughout the film that come together to create a tapestry of the character.
Ed Harris is magnificent as the detective, Remy. He is electric, alive with danger and passion throughout the film. He doesn’t like Patrick, and Patrick doesn’t like him, and it’s fascinating to watch the arc of those two characters as they get closer and then farther away from one another as the film progresses. Mr. Harris has a monologue, late in the film, in which he declaims in no uncertain terms his views about good and evil in the world, and it is a scene that is positively haunting. (“Fucking A! You gotta take a side. You molest a child, you beat a child, you’re not on my side. You see me coming, you better run because I am going to lay you the FUCK down. Easy.”) It’s one of the most powerful, cracklingly electric monologues I have ever seen an actor deliver on film. Mr. Harris just kills it, he hits that scene right out of the park. It’s incredible.
Then there is Amy Ryan. I saw this film right around the time when I was discovering The Wire, and so soon after seeing Gone Baby Gone for the first time, I saw Amy Ryan’s work in season two of The Wire as the extremely likable officer Beatrice Russell. The two performances could not be more different. It took me a while to realize both roles were played by the same actress! Beatrice is a nice woman, one of the few seemingly innocent people in the grim world of The Wire. Helene McCready is a profane, immoral creature, and it’s hard to dispute her sister’s description of her as “an abomination.” Just watch any scene of Amy Ryan from The Wire followed by a scene from Gone Baby Gone, and you will be, like I was, bowled over by Ms. Ryan’s powerful, brave performance. (And she sells the hell out of that thick Boston accent, too!)
I could go on and on about the rest of the cast. Titus Welliver (the Man in Black from Lost) is superb as Lionel McCready (looking and sounding quite a bit like Sam Elliott’s The Stranger from The Big Lebowski), and he has a couple of scenes in the film that are just magnificent. Edi Gathigi has only one scene, but it is a doozy, as the Haitian “Cheese,” and Mr. Gathigi creates a ferocious, memorable bad-guy. Michael Kenneth Williams (Omar Little from The Wire) pops up for one key scene of exposition, and he’s great. Then there is Morgan Freeman, who gives a twist to his usual saintly persona to great effect. His final scene with Casey Affleck is a killer.
This is not a happy movie, make no mistake. Some truly terrible things happen over the course of the film, things that are difficult to watch. And the moral dilemma that the film builds to in the third act is wrenching. I love that, in the end, Gone Baby Gone doesn’t end on the machinations of a “whodunnit” — instead, the film proves to be all about a brutal moral dilemma, a choice that Patrick has to make and that the audience, in either agreeing with or conemning Patrick’s actions, must also make, each viewer for him or her-self. Gone Baby Gone doesn’t provide a nice happy ending for the audience to feel good about once the movie is over. No, this is a movie that you will find yourself thinking about and debating long after it ends. Every time I watch Gone Baby Gone, I find myself enmeshed in conversations, after the film is finished, with whoever I watched it with, debating whether we feel that, in the end, Patrick made the right or the wrong choice. I love that the film doesn’t give us any easy answers.
Even the music of Gone Baby Gone is pretty much perfection. The stately score by Harry Gregson Williams is haunting and beautiful. (Click here for a sample.) It stays in my head long after I finish watching the movie. Magnificent.
What else can I say? Despite the difficult subject matter, despite how difficult it is to watch in places, I adore Gone Baby Gone. It’s one of the very best crime films I have ever seen, and I am selling the movie short by describing it as a crime film. This is a drama, pure and simple, and it’s one that will stay with you. I know it has stayed with me, and it’s a film that gets richer each time I revisit it.