Ben Affleck’s career has some of the sharpest peaks and troughs of anyone in the industry. From the highs of an Oscar win for the screenplay he co-wrote with Matt Damon for the wonderful Good Will Hunting to the lows of the universally hated Gigli and Pearl Harbour he’s seen both sides of the fame coin.
Gone Baby Gone, his 2007 directorial début, is really the beginning of Affleck’s career renaissance, his emergence from several fallow years which for a while made him more a figure of fun than a respected creative force. With a series of high-profile box-office and critical albatrosses still draped heavily round his neck, Ben Affleck the director was born, and, by returning to his native Massachusetts, was able to revive a stalling career.
His film follows private investigators Patrick (Casey Affleck, Ben’s younger brother) and Angie (Michelle Monaghan) who are drafted in by distraught relatives to help investigate the kidnap of Amanda Macready, a local five year-old girl. Paired with Ed Harris’ gruff veteran detective Remy Bressant, they soon realise that the child’s mother Helene (Amy Ryan) is a drug-taking alcoholic who doesn’t seem to care that much, but set out to find Amanda in Boston’s criminal underworld regardless…
The first thing which strikes you about Gone Baby Gone is the cast list; in addition to the impressive above talent, Morgan Freeman stars as the conflicted head of the police division devoted to child kidnapping and Michael K. Williams (The Wire‘s Omar Little) appears as one of Patrick’s police confidantes in the final third. It’s a vast array of experienced talent for a first-time director to amass, even one as well-known as Affleck.
Yet the biggest question about the cast list is undoubtedly that shared surname: it would be easy to worry that big brother is doing his younger sibling a favour by giving him a lead role. Such fears are, fortunately, ill-grounded.
Indeed, C. Affleck shines as Patrick, a quiet storm of a man whose lack of imposing physicality is more than compensated for by a ferocious, intelligent intensity; staring down drug dealers, suspects and supposed colleagues alike, Affleck’s gaze is fearsome, his threats immediate and believable. Patrick’s relationship with Angie (the two are a couple as well as partners) offers a nice backdrop for proceedings, as he fights not only to solve the case but to protect her, and Affleck and Monaghan’s interplay is pitch-perfect, often frayed but always honest.
The support is generally strong, although Ryan’s turn as Amanda’s scumbag mother is the film’s towering performance. Helene is a vile, selfish, undeserving mother but Ryan makes her more than a construct, sparsely but effectively revealing the deep maternal trauma Helene suffers to make her feel like more than a tawdry hate figure.
Affleck senior’s direction is also excellent. His depiction of Boston’s seedy side-streets is superb, capturing the perilous, dank confines of a grimy bar or the horrifying contents of an abandoned house with a keen eye and interesting composition. This latter location, certainly the film’s most chilling, offers one sequence in particular which sears into the mind, framed ingeniously and never resorting to cheap scares or voyeuristic explicitness.
Yet for all its worthiness and inventiveness, the biggest issue with Gone Baby Gone, and one which is impossible to ignore, is its excessively labyrinthine, twist-happy denouement. In a dramatic thriller, it’s not uncommon to finish with a flourish, to suddenly invert the plot and reveal that all is not as it seems, but here there are simply too many false dawns, to the point where a sense of frustration creeps in. In the end, it’s a cleverly worked conceit, but the problem is that by the time we reach the truth, we’re exhausted and more than a little annoyed at the time it’s taken to get there.
After a largely slow-paced first hour, the film jumps into life quicker than the recipient of a defibrillator shock, and B. Affleck is forced to rattle through a series of reveals without ever really exploring each one enough. It’s a tribute to his direction that we can follow what’s going on at all, but the final third feels paradoxically rushed and slightly baggy, undercutting what to that point is a taut, gritty and inventive thriller. There are simply too many characters lying at once, so many in fact that we wonder if Patrick – the only person who suspects anything – has some superhuman capacity for deduction in order to unpack it at all.
It’s not very often that you find a movie whose only real problem is its plot, but the final third of Gone Baby Gone is really the only thing stopping it from being a brilliant movie. Astute direction, a cavalcade of superb performances and a solid script make the first two acts eminently watchable, yet the more-twists-than-a-60s-dancefloor ending leaves you feeling a bit deflated.
Verdict: an extremely strong début from Ben Affleck the director, returning to his Boston roots without lazily rehashing old themes. A largely crisp, refreshingly dark thriller lit up by Casey Affleck and Amy Ryan’s stunning performances, Gone Baby Gone is a tightly-wound crime drama which unravels too quickly, and too much, as it reaches its climax, but remains an inventive and compelling film nonetheless.