Gone Baby Gone: a movie review

It’s hard to sum up why I found Gone Baby Gone so effective and affecting, because a lot of its virtue is quiet, ambiguous, hard to pin down… much like the film itself.

The story in a nutshell: A pair of unglamorous PIs (Casey Affleck and Michelle Monaghan) go looking for a four-year-old girl, hoping their unofficial questioning will dig up a trail the police can’t find. This is a story we’ve seen before, and it’s usually better suited to movies of the week. But Gone Baby Gone (from the novel by Dennis Lehane) has a rare sense of subtlety and gravity, crucial when handling such potentially exploitative material.

It doesn’t fall back on any of the usual cinematic clichés: no perfect home life in the background, no slaveringly obvious pervert hanging around the playground, and — most strikingly — no attempt to inflate our innate anxiety over the child’s fate. First-time director Ben Affleck respects his audience enough to know that our own fears on her behalf are more dreadful, more harrowing, and more indelible than any frantic speculation the characters might spout.

Famously Boston-native, Affleck paints a grubbily accurate picture of a hard-scrabble Southie neighborhood, and of a family life that is anything but heartwarming. Amy Ryan (“The Wire,” “The Office”) really gets to show her acting chops as Amanda’s sullen, slatternly, drug-addicted mother; Ryan delivers a searingly unsympathetic portrait devoid of the cheap villainy or bathetic mush of so many bad movie mothers. Casey Affleck and Michelle Monaghan are similarly well-used; they’re not heroes, just a couple of work-a-day investigators floundering around way out of their depth. Gone Baby Gone manages to combine a wry, tense crime thriller with a depressingly realistic look at negligence and poverty, and it raises some troubling and nuanced moral questions.

[This review is cross-posted at The VideoReport.

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