"Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. ... He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it."
-- Raymond Chandler, The Simple Art of Murder
The detective's job and nature haven't changed much since Raymond Chandler wrote those words in 1945; the streets, though, are another matter. Directed by Ben Affleck, Gone Baby Gone follows two detectives, Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) and Angie Genarro (Michelle Monaghan) as they go down the main streets and back alleys of shabby South Boston investigating the disappearance of little Amanda McCready (Madeline O'Brien). The girl's mother Helene (Amy Ryan) is a drunk, a druggie, a loser. In the early scenes where Helene stands in front of the media circus that's erupted around the case, Ryan brings a perverse, compelling mix of emotions to life in Helene's eyes, fear and confusion and a fierce, wretched kind of glee: She finally matters.
And normally, she doesn't, and she knows it. It's Helene's sister-in-law Beatrice (Amy Madigan) who actually hires Kenzie and Genarro -- Helene and her brother Lionel (Titus Welliver) both can't imagine anything above and beyond the efforts of the Boston PD. Kenzie and Genarro take the case, figuring they'll ask a few questions and earn a few bucks. The cops working the abduction (John Ashton and Ed Harris) are driven and competent and not overly fond of private investigators; their boss, Captain Doyle (Morgan Freeman) lost his own daughter to an abduction-murder years back, so he's driven, too. But everyone involved knows the math: The longer Amanda is lost, the more likely she'll be lost forever. And, through the days that turn to weeks, something happens: Kenzie can't stop looking.
Gone Baby Gone is based on a novel by Dennis Lehane, the Boston-based crime writer who also wrote Mystic River (and who's also written for HBO's The Wire); Gone Baby Gone is actually fourth in a series of five novels about Kenzie and Gennaro, and while a casual, cynical onlooker would think that casting the baby-faced Affleck and the elfin Monaghan as private eyes is a concession to the youth market, it's worth noting that Kenzie and Gennaro are that young in the books, too. And if the audience doubts that Kenzie and Genarro have the chops to really handle the job, well, aren't we thinking that about Affleck, too?
And yet, after enduring a level of public scrutiny in regard to his private life that would make mere mortals mad and our enduring many of his spectacularly bad choices as an actor, it's nice to see that Affleck's direction here is not merely competent but even accomplished. Detractors will suggest that Affleck's hired such talented production staff here that his film can't help but look superb; cinematographer John Toll's worked extensively with Cameron Crowe; editor William Goldenberg's collaborated with Michael Mann all the way back to Heat. Still, considering how many directors fail to hire that high level of talent for their production staff, Affleck at least deserves some credit for accomplishing the seemingly-disappearing art of wise decision-making. And even beyond his competent hiring, Affleck also captures the real Boston -- his hometown -- in a completely real-yet-riveting fashion. Affleck's Boston looks right -- grand homes with peeling paint, extras with sallow skin and bar room tans, small-part extras whose broad accents speak of their narrow lives, whose mere presence evokes a whole community. Lehane knows this territory -- one of the best, most unfilmable moments in the novel Mystic River comes at the start, a side-note that explaining how our heroes grew up downwind of the Hershey factory where their dads worked and to this day can't stomach the thought of sweets. Lehane knows these people, understands the yearnings and desires they choke out in half-mumbled bar talk, and the movie's smart enough to let the author speak through the film.
Affleck also adapted the screenplay alongside Aaron Stockard, and while some of the thriller-film clockwork is a little rusty (there's a central event we see at least three times in different permutations and iterations, but the actual mechanics of the event itself are never entirely clear) the script overall works, and works well. Kenzie and Genarro don't walk through the plot infallible and untouchable; they make mistakes, get hurt, hurt others, hurt each other. Gone Baby Gone follows classic noir plots like Chinatown and L.A. Confidential in construction, if not tone or scope (and I can't say more for risk of ruining the film), and while the revelations and reversals may feel expected, they never feel unwelcome. Affleck's Kenzie may be a little young-looking for a private dick, but his bruised heart is in the right place, and he follows it all the way down. Monaghan may be forced into doing more reacting than acting by the script -- Gennaro's more Kenzie's conscience than partner, in a lot of ways -- but she's also a real and vital presence, giving Affleck and the film a strong partner to bounce off of. The big-name supporting players do what you hire them for -- Freeman's imperial, Harris a little scary, Madigan maternal in the fierce, fearsome way childless women can be -- and I don't think it's an overstatement to suggest that Ryan could be in contention for a Supporting Actress Oscar nomination. Helene's not ashamed of her crimes; in fact, she's oddly proud of them, and that hell-bound exuberance fairly leaps out of her eyes in every scene. Gone Baby Gone is a tough sell -- a new-school old-fashioned private eye movie -- but (risky though it is to put opinions in the mouths of dead men) I think Chandler would have liked it; I know I certainly did.
For more on Gone Baby Gone, see Erik's take on the film.