Did you hear about the actor-turned-director who took an acclaimed Dennis Lehane novel and nailed both its distinctive South Boston atmosphere and its exploration of impossible moral choices? Hint: It’s not Clint Eastwood, and we’re not talking about his adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River.
You may snicker at the notion of Ben Affleck turning serious filmmaker, but whatever you think of him as an actor or a public personality, the dude does a lot of things right in his riveting adaptation of Lehane’s Gone Baby Gone. The Boston native gathers a terrific cast and crafts a portrait of its world as riveting as it is heartbreaking.
The plot launches from the disappearance of 4-year-old Amanda McCready from her bedroom in the Dorchester neighborhood. Police and the media are all over the story of the panicked mother Helene, but Helene’s brother and sister-in-law hire private investigator Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) to help with the investigation. Patrick’s native sense of the neighborhood allows him to make headway, discovering that Helene’s nasty habits may have provided a motive for Amanda’s disappearance. And the more Patrick and his girlfriend/business associate Angie (Michelle Monaghan) dig into the case, the harder it may be to emerge unscathed.
From virtually the opening shot, Affleck makes it clear how firmly he’s going to ground this story in its sense of place. He presents a parade of background figures whose less-than-Hollywood-beautiful faces and bodies show the consequences of hard living. He allows them to speak not just with a recognizable accent, but also in the language of a lower-class neighborhood. Unlike so many literary adaptations that focus almost entirely on plot, Gone Baby Gone demonstrates an intrinsic understanding that the setting is as fundamental a part of the story as any of the characters.
And the characters themselves don’t exactly suck, either. Casey Affleck, for one, nails the combination of quick mind and street smarts that makes Patrick more dangerous than people expect just from looking at him.
The plot takes some improbable turns, and Affleck responds with rote measures like extended flashbacks to put all the pieces together. But any directing blunder he might possibly have committed feels forgivable after the staggering impact of his final shot. There’s both familiarity and deep sadness here—the kind that comes from someone who’s talking about his own back yard.