I like Ben Affleck, as my loyal readers already know. I like him as a movie star, for he is handsome, charming and likable and I like him even more as an articulate, intelligent, committed liberal.And now he has directed a movie, Gone Baby Gone, based on a novel by Dennis Lehane, and he has done a pretty good job of it. I remember reading a review where the complaint was that Affleck peopled his movie with too many unsavory-looking real people from tough Boston neighborhoods. I found it totally refreshing that here is an American commercial film where the much touted prosperity of our country is nowhere in evidence. Affleck takes his sweet time showing almost nothing but poverty, ignorance and crime and I commend him for it. He really does not sugarcoat the sordid underbelly of drug and child abusers, and the movie is actually rather hard to watch. There is not much to be so smug about at home, the movie seems to say.
The story is a sad and sordid affair. Brother Casey stars as Patrick Kenzie, a very young guy who specializes in missing person cases; as he points out, the kind of missing who disappear as their bills mount. But in this case, a little girl has been abducted and Amy Madigan, in a powerful performance as her aunt, hires him and his lover and partner, Michelle Monaghan (who seems too wholesome for the way she makes a living), to help look for the girl. I had major reservations about Casey Affleck in that Jesse James movie. He is kind of an unlikely movie star, with a reedy, thin voice and strange good looks. He looks a bit like a goof, and his performance in that movie lacked focus. In this case, Casey is much more convincing, and quite compelling as a young detective with connections in the hood and unimpeachable morals. Now, why Americans, even intelligent and sensitive ones like Ben Affleck, have this unyielding obsession with moral heroics, I still can't totally fathom, and a lot of the movie concentrates in Kenzie growing into the very challenging role he has been assigned with utter moral certainty. He is sort of a reluctant hero, but his probity is the kind that seems to exist only in movies and the convention seems at odds with the rest of the film. Yet at the core of the film lies an interesting moral dilemma. The mother of the missing child makes Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest seem like Florence Nightingale. Amy Ryan deserves an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress. Not only she is a coke whore and a drunk but she exhibits the kind of tough, irresponsible, bitter selfishness that only the dispossessed can have. She is fierce and tough and angry and scarred by life and unafraid of meanness, but even she eventually breaks as no sign of the girl turns up. Her pain seems genuine, at least for a moment, but survival makes her craven, not a saint. She is a defiant wreck and the performance is pitch perfect and astounding.
Not to give away the complicated plot, the dilemma centers on what is best for the girl versus what is the right thing to do. The movie stretches credibility by making the dilemma more powerful than it is but it still is a nice twist to what seems like a routine police thriller. The road to hell is paved with good intentions and morality (and this may be a fresh concept in this country) is not as cut and dry as people hold it to be.