Moral ambiguity is the real star of Ben Affleck’s helming debut, “Gone Baby Gone,” an involving Boston-set tale of mixed motives, selflessness and perfidy in the wake of a 4-year-old girl’s disappearance. Adapted from a novel by “Mystic River” author Dennis Lehane, somber pic radiates a feel for Beantown’s working-class Dorchester neighborhood, in and around which two private investigators encounter a morass of motivations. Sharp thesping and conversation-starting themes suggest an honorable career, especially if reviews don’t spill too many beans. Miramax release goes out Oct. 19 Stateside.
Baby-faced, 31-year-old private detective Patrick Kenzie (the director’s brother, Casey Affleck) has lived on the same block his whole life. He shares a modest apartment with his professional and romantic partner, Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan). Theirs is a neighborhood where even tykes swear a blue streak and one’s high school classmates may not have known there were other career options beyond cop or criminal. Blue-collar vs. no-collar animosity is a given, but there’s a code that fluidly straddles all sorts of activity.
Patrick and Angie are roused early one morning by distraught Bea McCready (Amy Madigan) and her husband, Lionel (Titus Welliver). It’s been three days since their little niece Amanda was abducted from the apartment where she lived with her single mom Helene (Amy Ryan), Lionel’s sister. The possible kidnapping is all over the news, but despite the efforts of Capt. Jack Doyle (Morgan Freeman) and his Crimes Against Children unit, the police haven’t made much progress.
Bea wants Patrick and Angie — whose missing-persons experience consists mostly of tracking down credit scofflaws — to conduct a parallel investigation. Angie, who cherishes the modest but good life they’ve built together, is wary of taking on anything that might end with a tiny dead body. But Patrick feels his contacts and the fact he doesn’t carry a badge can help.
Doyle reluctantly agrees to let Patrick and Angie tag along with seasoned cops Remy Bressant (Ed Harris) and Nick Poole (John Ashton). The quartet learn that an impressive amount of money belonging to a scary local drug dealer went astray not long before Amanda vanished.
There seems to be a connection and, despite Doyle’s indignation, unorthodox plans are made to trade the cash for the child. The case seems to have been more or less resolved roughly one hour in, but Patrick can’t shake a niggling discrepancy in something one character said. Tortuous though it is, uncovering the truth proves easier than deciding what to do with the information.
With this perf and his turn in “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” Casey Affleck shows low-key but potent acting chops to be reckoned with. Harris is another standout in a well-cast ensemble, and Ryan makes an almost certainly unfit mother — whose drinking problem is dwarfed only by her cocaine habit — seem real as well as negligent.
Helmer Affleck establishes and maintains an omnipresent sense of place, advantageously enhanced by little-known local thesps, thoughtfully lensed locations and vivid cutaways to local denizens. The feeling that even the deepest shared-roots camaraderie comes with veiled threats permeates the proceedings.
Pic’s only substantial shortcoming lies in the story itself: The logistics of one attempted good deed seem unlikely to withstand the test of time, perhaps not even immediate scrutiny.