You know that awards season is here because two dead-kid movies, Gone Baby Gone and Reservation Road, open on the same day, October 19—and there’s nothing like dead or imperiled children to up the dramatic stakes. You’ll have to forgive me for not reviewing both: I have a firm one-dead-kid-movie-per-column limit. So I chose Gone Baby Gone: It’s based on one of Dennis Lehane’s terrific Kenzie-Gennaro detective novels, and I wanted to see if Ben Affleck could commit as a director the way he doesn’t as an actor. He can, it turns out. His dark, doom-laden Boston has more gravity than Jupiter, and the movie sinks its hooks in painfully deep.
Gone Baby Gone revolves around the disappearance of Amanda, a 4-year-old Dorchester girl whose single mother (Amy Ryan) is an addict and Lord knows what else. It’s her pious sister (Amy Madigan) who hires the private investigators Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) and Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan) to poke around the neighborhood the way the cops can’t. Patrick grew up amid Irish toughies and Angie comes from Mafia stock—although Affleck and his co-screenwriter, Aaron Stockard, leave out her backstory and the character suffers for it. Gone Baby Gone is the fourth book in the series, which means a lot of that backstory is missing. But you know why Affleck wanted to make it. Written just before Lehane’s Mystic River, it’s the rare genre novel that poses an unanswerable question: How far can you go to protect neglected and abused children in a world rife with selfish parents and predators? It’s a vigilante book at war with itself, with an ending that will leave you similarly ripped in half—a shambles. (Just to be clear: I’m not saying Amanda is or isn’t the movie’s dead kid, only that there is one.)
Affleck shot the film in Boston, and he captures the city’s unfathomable layout, intense tribalism, and the existential separateness of its neighborhoods better than Scorsese in The Departed. But his hand is often heavier than it needs to be. He lingers on the mottled, leering visages of the working-class locals, so that the city becomes a circus-freak show. And he lets his actors stride into the minefield that is the fake Boston accent: It’s all “pahk ya cah” and “fock yah muthah.”
The actors are amazing in spite of those accents. Casey Affleck has never had a pedestal like the one his brother provides him, and he earns it. His Patrick is pale and raspy, with a slight grogginess that gives him an astounding vulnerability—and makes his bursts of temper shocking. He’s not physically imposing, but he reels off four-letter words so fast that it leaves his bigger and more dangerous opponents staring in disbelief. Michelle Monaghan has the more recessive role: Angie doesn’t want the case and seems almost too fragile to contemplate the abuse of the child she’s hunting. But what a face she has. Every wary look, every retreat is beautifully expressive. Morgan Freeman—improbably cast as a Boston police chief named Doyle—gives a perfectly judged performance, with enough in reserve to keep you guessing. Ed Harris plays a homicide cop with spooky blue eyes that never blink. He looks both insane and all-seeing, as if he knows too many bad things to close them ever again.
Maybe a cigar is just a cigar, but if you smoke a big fat one while holding forth on social justice and, implicitly, the necessity of murdering people to achieve it, you come off as a dangerously self-satisfied and conscienceless voluptuary. In General Idi Amin Dada: A Self-Portrait, the director Barbet Schroeder gave the egotistical Ugandan mass murderer the time and space to expose himself, and in Terror’s Advocate he does the same thing with stogie-sucking Jacques Vergès, legal defender of some of the most righteously homicidal people on earth. The film is long and increasingly convoluted, but Vergès’s journey, from impassioned anti-colonialist (he defended the Algerian War of Independence’s most glamorous terrorist, Djamila Bouhired, and then married her) to cohort of the Red Brigades, Carlos “the Jackal,” and Klaus Barbie, is a brilliant study in the link between moral corruption and narcissism.