Pulp friction

Gone Baby Gone
Starring Casey Affleck, Ed Harris, Morgan Freeman, Michelle Monaghan and Amy Ryan. Directed by Ben Affleck. Rated R.
Rated 4.0

Adapted from a novel by Dennis Lehane (Mystic River), this brooding crime drama is distinguished by its harsh honesty and a stinging sense of human character. It’s a detective story soaked in several kinds of realism—social, psychological, moral—and it brings an uncommonly intense moral ambiguity to the conventions of the private eye tale, and of film noir as well.

The basic narrative premise—the investigation of a missing-child case among low-life types in a working-class section of Boston—might seem loaded with lurid possibilities. But pulp sensationalism and tabloid hysteria get relegated to the far corners of character and social background here, and the mystery plot unfolds in increasingly convoluted fashion. The solution of mysteries here only leads to further, deeper dilemmas.

The chief suspense in Gone Baby Gone is less a matter of plot twists than of character puzzles. Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck), the scrawny private eye who backs his way into the case, proves tougher and smarter than he looks, but his methods and motives often seem shaky. Key police figures, including those played by Ed Harris and Morgan Freeman, have half-hidden agendas of their own, and the relatives of the missing child comprise a bizarre little menagerie of muddled motives and mismatched emotional postures.

In his directorial debut, Ben Affleck (who also co-authored the screenplay with Aaron Stockard) is skillful enough with actors and social atmosphere that the production maintains its emotional conviction and its moral complexity even as late-breaking plot twists nudge it dangerously close to preposterousness. Affleck and a fine cast (especially his younger brother Casey) successfully traverse the dicey territory between stark realism and morbid sensationalism—a crucial ingredient in this smartly de-romanticized, relentlessly unsentimental cop story.

Casey Affleck, who is also excellent currently as Robert Ford in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, emerges as a master of edgy understatement here. And Amy Ryan is chillingly astute as the drug-addled party girl who is the missing child’s mother. Several first-time actors from the Boston area make sharp contributions to the film’s pungently visualized local color.