Ben Affleck redeems years of bad and mediocre work by shepherding to the screen the first adaptation of Dennis Lehane's atmospheric Patrick Kenzie-Angie Gennaro detective novels. Gone Baby Gone, based on the fourth in Lehane's series, dredges the swampy ethics of private detection, police work, and parenting. The story concerns the search for a little girl lost, and Affleck honors Lehane's unconventional plotting by allowing information and action to emerge on an inconvenient schedule. Better yet, Affleck and his co-screenwriter Aaron Stockard employ their Boston-bred sensibility to give the Dorchester-set story the proper patois and a palpability of place.
Missing-persons P.I. Kenzie (Casey Affleck) proves the point in his opening narration: "Your city. Your neighborhood. Your family...make you who you are." With his girlfriend and partner Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan), Kenzie finds "the people who started in the cracks and then fell through." In this case, it's Amanda McCready (Madeline O'Brien), a moppet belonging to neglectful mother Helene (Amy Ryan, in a rightly Oscar-nominated performance). When Amanda goes missing, Helene's sister-in-law (Amy Madigan) drags her husband (Titus Welliver) to hire Kenzie and Gennaro to supplement the police investigation.
Given the casting of youngish, baby-faced Affleck, the screenwriters elect to have the cops bust Kenzie's balls for his young appearance. He gets withering glances from Capt. Jack Doyle (Morgan Freeman)—whose deadly serious mien comes from his own loss of a daughter in the past—and lead investigators Remy Bressant (Ed Harris) and Nick Poole (John Ashton). The investigation's twists lead to an unusual two-climax, two-act structure that winningly puts audiences off-guard.
Casey Affleck fits the part of Kenzie, and though he is the director's brother, his 2007 Oscar nomination (for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) testifies to his emerging talent in his own right and in larger roles. Affleck ably carries the film as lead—his Kenzie is a thinking man's detective with average-joe aplomb. Monaghan's Gennaro is sorely underused; though the novels favor Kenzie as protagonist, his right-hand woman should be less misty and more whip-crack sassy than writer-director Affleck and actor Monaghan allow.
The supporting cast is thoroughly excellent, from the grotesquerie of Boston extras to the relative unknowns in the supporting cast (e.g. Welliver, who has always deserved a film role this good) to top-liners Harris and Freeman. Ryan's character will be the one best remembered. Her mother shows signs of guilt and concern, but enough to make the audience truly comfortable with her. And yet, though she's an addict and a mess—sarcastic, angry and crass when she should be humbled—Helene is a tragically pitiable figure as a product of her environment: even if Amanda could be found and returned, would she be in a real sense "saved"?
Affleck makes the right choice in hiring Oscar-winning cinematographer John Toll to shoot Boston with no fuss, no muss, but plenty of grit. The screenwriters also honor Lehane by not sidestepping his moral murk: on the contrary, the characters debate at length the proper choice of action, and the situations are complex enough to leave the audience in doubt as to the correct choice. When it comes to the story's element of mystery, the ultimate revelation isn't terribly hard to foresee, but the structure and layered storytelling make Gone Baby Gone richly satisfying all the same.
Though home-theater buffs consider blockbuster action movies to be "reference discs," a film like Gone Baby Gone may be a better, subtler test of what Blu-Ray can do for a spanking-new film. Affleck's film has a naturalistic look in terms of lighting and photography, and film grain is bound to be evident in any transfer. And yet, Blu-Ray gives the home-video transfer spot-on color and often astonishing detail while never sharpening the image unnaturally to give it a digital rather than a film-like appearance.
A helicopter shot of a water-filled quarry, for example—a shot of considerable movement and depth—looks downright three-dimensional. As is common across all platforms, low-lit scenes shot in this style get grainier and less detailed, but otherwise Gone Baby Gone looks terrific. As for the PCM 5.1 surround track, it's equally attentive, packing a helluva punch in the three sequences involving gunplay but also well-serving the dialogue and music that are more common with a carefully balanced mix.
Viewers are also treated to a nice plate of extras. A commentary track by Ben Affleck and co-writer Aaron Stockard (why no Casey?) doesn't exactly fill every moment, and the talent is soft-spoken to a fault, but the duo still doles out plenty of interesting trivia. Affleck explains the idea behind the opening montage (and how he used the raw footage to prepare the cast), and he and Stockard address at length the local color and the film's accuracy of geography and local culture. (Affleck also point out his blink-and-you-miss-it cameo.)
The featurettes "Going Home: Behind the Scenes with Ben Affleck" (7:03) and "Capturing Authenticity: Casting Gone Baby Gone" (8:57) aren't as interesting as they sound. Since they poll both Afflecks, Stockard, producer Sean Bailey, Freeman, Monaghan, Harris, Ryan, Ashton, Toll, and a handful of locals, there's no opportunity for more than soundbite depth. Consequently, these shorts play like standard EPK fare. On the bright side, they're presented in 1080i high-definition.
That's not true of the "Deleted Scenes" (17:05, with a "Play All" option), but Affleck presents a generous selection: "Extended Opening," "On the Porch," "After the Bar Fight," "Having Kids," "Quarry Jump," and "Extended Ending." They're largely extended versions of what's already in the film, but they provide an interesting insight into the editing process, particularly as they're accompanied by optional commentary by Affleck and Stanford. One of the best releases of 2007, Gone Baby Gone deserves repeat viewings, especially in its beautiful Blu-Ray presentation.
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