Straw poll. Ben Affleck: hate him
or really hate him? Let's not beat around the bush; Affleck the elder has been trading off his early successes for years, coasting through a career peppered with duff action vehicles, with a smug grin permanently slapped just above his gigantic chin. Just look at the man's IMDb profile picture
: it screams 'Punch Me! I earn too much money!' Enough cons, how about some pros? He is an Oscar winner after all; the last movie he co-wrote was Good Will Hunting and that turned out okay. And if last year's turn in Hollywoodland was any indication, Ben Affleck the actor looks like stepping out of the shadow of Ben Affleck the asshole. Now he's turned his hand to directing. Anyone interested? Wow, tough crowd.
But give the man a chance: with Gone Baby Gone, he might just be on the way to winning back the people. Adapting the brooding crime novel from acclaimed author Dennis Lehane (Mystic River, Shutter Island etc.) has proved to be a masterstroke. Affleck's gritty, no frills direction suits the raw subject material down the ground. The result is one of the most gripping thrillers of the year so far, with tight plotting, moral complexity and far more emotion than you ever thought an Affleck would be capable of.
Ben's little brother Casey plays private investigator Patrick Kenzie, who solves missing person cases along with girlfriend Angie Gennaro (Monaghan) on the mean streets of Boston. When the couple are approached by the family of Amanda McCready, a missing girl at the centre of a media storm, they reluctantly take the case and sniff out the gory details from the city's less-than savoury inhabitants. Their main lead is Amanda's skank-ho mother Helene (Oscar-nominated Amy Ryan), whose inner-city drug connections are the thread the pair pull on to unravel the bigger picture. Teaming up with Ed Harris' hard-nosed Detective Remy Bressant, the amateur gumshoes soon realise this story isn't likely to have a happy ending. You'll know how they feel.
The parallels with the real-life case of Madeline McCann are unavoidable: this is awkward territory indeed. (Not least because of the uncanny likeness of the child actor playing the missing girl. Her real name? Madeleine
). Gone Baby Gone makes for uncomfortable viewing, and not just because of the resonance of the subject matter. Lehane's novel throws up countless bluffs and dead-ends, meaning you're never sure which dark alley it's headed down next. The comforting resolution that's always waiting for you before the end credits? Not in this movie. Affleck's Boston is a bad city where bad people do bad things; with barely a single sympathetic character inhabiting it, you'll fear the worst and with good reason.
All reasons why you'll get behind Casey Affleck's private dick Kenzie one hundred per cent. With his chiselled jaw and furrowed brow, there are definite echoes of his older brother's Pearl Harbour posturing, but where Ben's stare was vacant and gormless, Casey's intense glare could bring down a fighter jet. Speaking through a slur of muffled street lingo and Boston patois ("Make me a Mahtini you fat fuckin' retahd!") he's an odd choice for a leading man - nepotism alert! - but it's a remarkably assured performance. The emotional fallout of the final reel would be lost on lesser actors: Affleck nails it all without ever flailing into the realms of needless melodrama.
Behind the camera, Ben would have been looking through the lens at what he could have become. It must have spurred him on to raise his game. Affleck's directorial debut is measured and meticulous, slow and steady, training his camera up close on his cast to catch every flicker of emotion in devastating detail. There's no slack here, and no signs of immaturity. Though action scenes are sparse, they are taut and breathlessly executed, generating a very real sense of peril. In Gone Baby Gone, a single gunshot could mean dead baby dead.
He's done a fine job casting, too: Monaghan proves a worthy partner to bro Casey; Amy Ryan is disgustingly fantastic as the "skeezer" single mother with a guilty conscience; Morgan Freeman brings his trademark quiet dignity to his role as Police Chief; and Ed Harris is off the freakin' chain as down 'n' dirty detective Bressant, who spits fire and fury in pursuit of the truth. By surrounding himself with talent, Affleck has built a solid foundation from which to work. It complements his direction and creates a film with no weak link.
Alright, so he occasionally uses voiceover as a crutch - Casey Affleck reading Lehane's prose with all the joy of Harrison Ford voicing Blade Runner's nice new ending - and flashbacks tend to add extraneous colour when none is needed. But for a first time director? This is A-grade stuff: well-plotted, unpredictable and grounded in reality from start to finish. Kudos, Mr. Affleck - change that IMDb picture and you're back in business. Ali