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:: Gone Baby Gone

“How can you get to heaven and still protect yourself from all the evil in the world?” asks Casey Affleck’s idealistic young narrator, as the camera lingers pointedly over the paint-peeling facades, dirty streets, and skinny junkie mothers clutching even skinnier children that make up his inner-city Boston neighbourhood. And as the voiceover fades and the action of the film takes over, this question continues to hang in the air, a conceptual whiff of incense that lingers suggestively, the essence of morality.

Ben Affleck’s directorial debut Gone Baby Gone adapts to the screen Dennis Lehane’s novel of the same name, a subtle parable on moral ambiguity as elegantly confronting as you would expect from the author of Mystic River. The two novels and their subsequent film adaptations share preoccupations and themes, but in Gone Baby Gone ideas of religion and faith that provided merely the backdrop for Mystic River come very much to the fore, and drive both the action and the argument of the film. The overwhelming presence of the iconography and ideology of Christianity as well as the setting recalls The Departed, yet unlike the fatalistic inevitability of Scorsese’s Boston, Affleck’s is a world of real moral choices, where the ethical shots fired are as live as the literal ones; more blanks than the literal ones.

When a six-year-old, Amanda McCready goes missing from a seedy Boston neighbourhood, the child’s Aunt begs the help of private investigators Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan) and Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) a young local couple. Despite misgivings, they take on the case and find themselves caught somewhere between the official world of the police and the community’s under-world, treated with equal suspicion by both camps. As they dig further into the disappearance however, truths give way under scrutiny, faith is challenged, and moral absolutes become as murky as the waters of the quarry which may hold the answers.

The real strength of this film lies in its ensemble cast who preserve Lehane’s story – not for nothing has his Kenzie/Gennaro series earned him comparisons with Raymond Chandler - from the melodrama it could so easily have become. With a cast featuring the likes of Morgan Freeman, Ed Harris, and Amy Ryan it would have been easy (and disastrous) for Casey Affleck to disappear into the scenery. As it is, Kenzie is not only the moral but the dramatic centre of the piece, and his conflicted attempts to do the right thing are credible precisely because of their lack of certainty or absolute conviction. Ed Harris turns in another standout performance, apparently relishing his dramatic devil’s advocate role as straight-talking straight-drinking Louisiana cop Remy Bressant. Likewise Amy Ryan as Amanda’s drug-addict mother is painfully convincing in her haphazard emotional shifts, by turns cringingly ingratiating and foully offensive, in a role that succeeds in simultaneously repulsing us and compelling our sympathy.

As a first-time feature Gone Baby Gone is impressive for its restraint, which allows its accomplished cast to carry the piece without undue interference, and with some welcome flashes of black humour that are so often missing from ‘worthy’ American projects. There are occasional slips towards the glib or facile almost inevitable with a story as charged as this, yet for the most part these are slight, and the film never lapses into either cynical complacency or pious preaching – no small achievement. Gone Baby Gone is that rare thing; a thriller that actually thrills without cheapening the issues it raises, a film that poses questions without forcing the answers from them.