If you ever want a good look at the state of Ben Affleck’s career, take a look at the trailer for Gone Baby Gone. There are no flashy “A Ben Affleck Film” exclamations, just a simple credit buried at the bottom of the screen at the end of the trailer. I had my reservations about the film, especially since it looked like a rehash of Clint Eastwood’s dreary Mystic River (2003) (both films are based on novels by Dennis Lehane)—not to mention the dubious casting of Affleck’s younger brother Casey and what looked like Morgan Freeman playing yet another omnipotent Morgan Freeman role. But what I hadn’t counted on, or had simply forgotten, was that for all the bad career moves made by the elder Affleck, and all his tabloid overexposure, he is not a stupid man. And Gone Baby Gone proves this.
It helps that Affleck chose to stay behind the camera instead of turning the film into a vanity project. And while the casting of his younger brother Casey could be written off in the same fashion, the reality is that he’s perfect for the role (and when paired with his turn in Ocean’s Thirteen, he gives his second exceptional performance of the year). At its base, the film is simple neo-noir, with Casey Affleck playing Patrick, a street-smart, baby-faced private investigator who specializes in missing persons, specifically those who skip town when they owe money. But when a 5-year-old girl comes up missing and the police run out of leads, Patrick’s approached by the girl’s family to help “augment” the investigation—namely, to get information off the streets from the shadier types who refuse to deal with the cops. Patrick soon learns that there’s more going on than the police know. As it turns out, the girl’s mother (Amy Ryan, Capote) is a drug addict and a neglectful parent. From here, it’s a journey into the seedier side of Boston, which no one could call flattering. The city is shown as violent, drug-riddled and dirty, with more white-trash denizens than a Rob Zombie movie. But at the same time, the film is respectful of these people as just that: people.
The film’s existence as a thriller is the root of the majority of its problems. Too often it falls into the trap of becoming too Hollywood-ized, complete with shoot-outs and David Fincher-style squalid locales, not to mention a plot that’s a bit too convoluted for its own good. And while these imperfections exist, in the end it’s the questions that the plot raises that make it more than a simple exercise in noir grit. By the time the credits come up, Gone Baby Gone changes a simple whodunit into an examination of moral ambiguity, about trying to do what is right in a world where there is no black or white, but simply shades of gray. When Patrick makes his final decision at the end of the film, it’s never spelled out as to whether or not it’s the correct decision—that’s left up to the viewer—but it does lend itself to the idea that there’s at least the hope that people can one day redeem themselves. It’s never even made obvious as to whether or not Patrick thinks he did the right thing, with a final shot that can either be read as hopeful or downbeat depending on the viewer’s perception.
Gone Baby Gone is not a perfect film—far from it—but it is one that raises the right questions. It’s a film about family and community, about atonement and morality and the ability of others to impose their influence on those less powerful. It’s been two days since I watched this film, and I’m still trying to figure out all of what it says and attempts to say. Whether this revitalizes or reimagines Ben Affleck’s career has yet to be seen, but that doesn’t change the fact that Gone Baby Gone is a nice change of pace in the usually vacuous world of the Cineplex. Rated R for violence, drug content and pervasive language.