By Matt Singer
[Photo: “Gone Baby Gone,” Miramax, 2007]
We hear Patrick Kenzie before we see him, as he narrates images of his blue-collar neighborhood. “This city is haaaahd,” he says, and if the visuals don’t give away the setting, that thick Boston accent sure as hell does. Patrick tells us he believes that the things we don’t choose where we grow up, who our friends are are the things that really make us who we are. “Gone Baby Gone” is about the process by which Patrick discovers he is wrong.
The film is actor Ben Affleck’s directorial debut, as well as his first return to screenwriting since his Academy Award winning script for 1997’s “Good Will Hunting,” and it is an impressive one. There are similarities to “Good Will Hunting” and other movies most notably “Mystic River,” which is also based on a Dennis Lehane novel set in working-class Boston but the movie stands on its own, as a thriller that, like the recent “Michael Clayton,” is more concerned with the morality behind its thrills.
Affleck doesn’t appear in the film, but his brother Casey plays Kenzie, a tough private investigator with a deceivingly youthful exterior. Kenzie has a reputation around his neighborhood for his connections to people who won’t speak with the cops; he’s hired, along with his partner and girlfriend Angie (Michelle Monaghan) by the family of a missing girl to augment a police investigation led by Captain Jack Doyle (Morgan Freeman) and Detective Remy Bressant (Ed Harris). The cops often underestimate Kenzie when Bressant first meets him and Angie he snickers, “I was expecting an older couple” and it’s easy to see why. He’s 31 and looks at least five years younger and Affleck’s fragile voice (which is higher than Monaghan’s) cracks in a way that suggests a state of suspended pubescence. But Kenzie knows this place, has access to its secrets, and hints, occasionally, at a past that was probably as dark as the men he’s chasing.
Most of “Gone Baby Gone” is about character rather than action, but there are two bravura sequences, and in each Affleck (working with veteran cinematographer John Toll) distinguishes himself with a knack for building, sustaining and then releasing tension. Instead of relying on a noisy soundtrack to provide emotional cues, Affleck conveys excitement and suspense through silence. In the midst of a terrifyingly bloody siege of a drug den, Affleck turns down all the sound until all we hear is Kenzie’s frantic breathing. The camerawork is often handheld in a way that recalls “Children of Men” long takes that never sacrifice clarity for the easy intensity that comes with shaky shots. And the screenplay is littered with brilliant little nuggets of hardboiled morality (“Murder’s a sin.” “Depends on who you do it to.”).
When Doyle and his cronies dismiss Kenzie for his youth they also assume his innocence equals naïveté. “You don’t know what the world is made of yet,” they warn. They may be right; Kenzie has a much different understanding of morality after he follows the kidnapping plot through to the end. The movie is littered with tough choices but the worst comes at the end of the movie, when Kenzie has to make a decision in which neither option is right or wrong. We watch as he weighs the alternatives and then we watch further as the repercussions of his actions begin to ripple through his life. The film’s film shot lingers long enough on its subjects to remind us that it’s the choices we make and how we live with our choices that define us. That great last shot shows Kenzie finally understands. He’s made his choice and he’s prepared to do what he must to see it right.
“Gone Baby Gone” opens in limited release October 19th (official site).