Gone Baby Gone (2007): Ben Affleck’s Feature Directing Debut, Starring Younger Brother Casey Affleck

Signaling an important event for the Affleck siblings, Gone baby Gone announces the honorable feature directorial debut of older brother and movie star Ben. But perhaps more importantly, the film signals a breakthrough year for younger brother, Casey, who gives his second strong performance this year, the other being “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” in which he plays Ford, the killer of the legendary criminal. With this dual achievement, Casey should easily move into the forefront of lead American actors.

The title, “Gone Baby Gone,” which makes the movie seem like an exploitation B-flick; it’s anything but. Moniker is actually a literal and accurate title, describing this policier’s main event, the disappearance of a young girl.

Having read Dennis Lehane’s novel upon which “Gone Baby Gone” is based, I can attest that Lehane’s other popular book, “Mystic River,” which Clint Eastwood made into an Oscar-winning film in 2003, has stronger narrative and more interesting characters.

Understandably, a novice helmer, Affleck lacks at this point the smooth, economic, self-assured touch that Eastwood brings to his films, but “Gone Baby Gone” shows plenty of talent behind (and in front of) the camera. The movie may signal the birth of Affleck as a gifted director, having reached nadir as a thesp in mainstream Hollywood pictures, mostly mindless blockbusters like “Armageddon” and “Pearl Harbor.”

The combination of these two factorsa yarn that feels too generic and a first-time helmermay explain why at the end of the modestly budgeted film (around $19 million), there’s some disappointment and slight frustrationdespite a fabulous ensemble of both old-timers and newcomers (See below).

Like “Mystic River,” “Gone Baby Gone” is set in a working-class Boston neighborhood, Dorchester, a locale both Affleck know firsthand from growing up and living around there. (If I’m not mistaken, the Afflecks, like Matt Damon, hail back from Cambridge). Also like the 2003 film, main characters are cops, criminals, and other blue-collar professionals.

Miramax has a good slate of films this season. After world-premiering in the Deauville Film Festival (out of competition) and playing at Toronto Festival, “Gone Baby Gone” will bow theatrically October 19. But the real stunning Miramax film this winter is the Coens’ masterpiece, “No Country for Old Men,” a modern Western and one of the three or four strongest films I saw at Cannes Fest in May. Casey Affleck plays the young private detective Patrick Kenzie, a man who has resided on the same street all of his life. Patrick shares his life with his bright companion Angie Gennaro (the gorgeously looking Michelle Monaghan, also a star-in-the-making), who’s also a detective. The stimulant event that throws Patrick and Angie, and the other denizens out of a semblance of balance, is the sudden, mysterious disappearance of Amanda, the 4-year-old niece of Lionel McCready (Titus Welliver) and his wife Bea (the always excellent Amy Madigan). There are no clues four days into Amanda’s abduction from her home, where she is raised by Lionel’s sister Helene (Amy Ryan), a single, blue-collar mother, who’s alcoholic and drug-addict. Despite concerted efforts of pros like Captain Jack Doyle (the always reliable Morgan Freeman) and his Crimes Against Children Unit, the police has not made any progress, and the alarm continues to grow, since it’s clear that every day makes the chances of finding Amanda alive slimmer. There’s also the menacing possibility that another abduction is in the works.

Out of desperation, Bea asks Patrick and Angie to help in investigating this case, though they lack the experience, and perhaps even the skills for such a grave task. While Angie is at first hesitant, Patrick shows immediate understanding of the urgency of the situation and persuades his lover to take the case.

Two more crucial characters are then introduced into the saga. Jack Doyle lets the couple join the professional team of Remy Bressant (Ed Harris, who’s married to Amy Madigan) and Nick Poole (John Ashton). With new players in place, a new, more complex group dynamics follows, with the color palette changing from black and white into gray. Predictably, some revelations are made along the way, such as drug-dealings and large amounts of money that may be more directly related to Amanda’s kidnapping than anyone is initially willing to admit.

Abiding by both a rigid professional and moral code of ethics, Jack Doyle opts to play it safe, raising objection to the couple’s unconventional schemes. Like many other American crimers and policiers, “Gone Bay Gone” suggests that instincts and feelings sometimes compensate for and offer revelatory insightslack of knowledge and professional skills. (It’s the old Heart Vs. Head issue in American culture).

Indeed, just when the case seems to be on the right track and on the way to be resolved, Patrick unveils a piece of information that implicates some of the presumably decent characters. (It’s tough to review a film whose joy is so dependent of a plot with twists and turns as this one).

Hence, in the film’s last reel, the tale get more morally ambiguous, with lots of shades of gray, and more thematically complex, offering the kinds of rewards that we expect from generic policiers.

As noted, Affleck imbues his largely engaging tale with a good deal of authenticity, in terms of looks, clothes, moods, conducts, and accents. Considering that he works with essentially generic material, Affleck gets much better results than an indie director like James Gray (The mediocre “The Yards,” the upcoming, equally mediocre “We Own the Night”), who also specializes in tales of working-class families composed of cops, criminals, misfits, and drug-addicts.

Cast

Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan) Jack Doyle (Morgan Freeman) Remy Bressant (Ed Harris) Nick Poole (John Ashton) Helene McCready (Amy Ryan) Bea McCready (Amy Madigan) Lionel McCready (Titus Welliver) Devin (Michael Kenneth Williams) Cheese (Edi Gathegi)

Credits

A Miramax Films release and presentation of a Ladd Co. Production. Produced by Alan Ladd Jr., Dan Rissner, Sean Bailey. Executive producer, David Crockett. Co-producer, Chay Carter. Associate producers: Amanda Lamb, Aaron Stockard. Directed by Ben Affleck. Screenplay: Ben Affleck and Aaron Stockard, based on the novel by Dennis Lehane. Camera: John Toll. Editor, William Goldenberg. Music, Harry Gregson-Williams. Production designer: Sharon Seymour. Art director: Chris Cornwell. Set designer: George R. Lee. Set decorator: Kyra Friedman Curcio. Costume designer: Alix Friedberg. Sound: Alan Rankin, Jeff Largent.

MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 117 Minutes.