Saturday, June 07, 2008

Review - Gone Baby Gone

Some five years after the world laughed in unison at Gigli, Ben Affleck has recently taken small but significant steps to turning his career around by sticking to material that suits him best. In Hollywoodland he was well cast as doomed Superman star George Reeves, and he acted within the parameters of his own ability, giving a modestly self-effacing performance that contained a surprising amount of gravitas. Now, for his first feature as a director, Affleck has chosen a thriller that allows him to shoot in his native Boston, and his kinship with the area is one of the prime reasons Gone Baby Gone works as well as it does. From the opening scenes, the film has an air of authenticity about its setting, with Affleck's decision to draw a number of his cast members from the local community adding to the picture's vivid sense of place.

Affleck's feel for the setting and characters in Gone Baby Gone is the most impressive attribute on display in his handling of this story, and it's enough to help the picture transcend some of its more awkward elements; areas in which the director's inexperience is a little more exposed. An adaptation of Dennis Lehane's 1998 novel, Gone Baby Gone features Casey Affleck, the director's brother, as low-rent Private Eye Patrick Kenzie. When a four year-old child is snatched from her bedroom one night, while the mother (Amy Ryan) visited a neighbour, Kenzie and his partner (Michelle Monaghan, in a painfully underdeveloped part) are approached by the child's aunt to help, the idea being that they might be able to dig into areas of the community in which the police are not welcome. His presence is frowned upon by the two cops leading the official investigation, Captain Jack Doyle (Morgan Freeman) – head of the Crimes Against Children unit – and the fiery Detective Remy Bressant (Ed Harris); and Doyle warns him that the already slim chances of them finding the girl are fading by the hour. The case does come to a conclusion, kind of, within the first hour of the picture, but something about it doesn't sit right with Kenzie, and his desire to dig even deeper into the case exposes him to some complex dilemmas.

The thorny quandaries Gone Baby Gone throws up are the compelling elements that hold the film together as the story unravels. The director, who co-wrote the screenplay with Aaron Stockard, lets the narrative unfold at a steady pace. His handling of the procedural aspects of the picture, at least initially, is excellent, and on a scene-by-scene basis Gone Baby Gone features a few moments of real force, many of which are provided by the excellent Amy Ryan, who elicits both our anger and empathy as the neglectful mother. In general, Affleck leans heavily on his cast, giving them the space to bring a sense of depth to their roles, and even if he indulges some of them a little too much – Ed Harris leaves tooth marks in the scenery with his wild-eyed turn – the results are impressive. In particular, the younger of the Affleck siblings offers another hugely impressive piece of acting in the central role. The film doesn't afford Casey Affleck the range to be as expressive as he was in last year's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (in which he gave the best performance of the year), but he does imbue Kenzie with a hard-bitten determinism that belies his youthful looks, and helps the character serve as an effective moral compass at the film's heart.

The first half of Gone Baby Gone is great – involving, mature and rich in gritty atmosphere – but at key points in the picture Affleck struggles to make the right choices. The pivotal scene that takes place at a quarry is clumsily edited, to the point where it's unclear what has taken place even when we are allowed a second glimpse of the incident later on. Such flaws may be put down to inexperience, but in the second half of the film Affleck also runs into more basic narrative problems, relying too much on expository dialogue and flashbacks to illuminate a tale that contains a couple of hard-to-swallow twists. As a result, the overall film doesn't feel quite as polished or coherent as other recent Boston-set crime dramas such as The Departed, or Clint Eastwood's own Lehane adaptation Mystic River.

Of course, comparing Affleck's debut feature with the work of those directors is unfair, and taken on its own terms Gone Baby Gone stands as a considerable achievement from the novice director. Now that it has finally arrived in the UK (the film has been delayed by months because of its similarity to the ongoing Madeline McCann case) it really deserves to be seen in spite of its flaws, mainly because it's a rare Hollywood thriller that dares to ask something of its audience. In the final scenes Kenzie is faced with a horrible choice, a decision in which he must weigh up the rights of a child against the rights of a parent, and at the same time every person in the cinema will doubtless be struggling with the same conundrum. Should Kenzie do the right thing, or should he do the right thing? Affleck offers up that question in a way that's potent without being heavy-handed, and he deserves our respect for continuing to probe the moral ambiguities of this story right up to the striking, hauntingly sad final shot.