This is the kind of movie you expect from an actor turned director: subdued, character-led, respectable. No-one goes Herzog their first time out. Even Mel Gibson waited until his third movie before he went bananas. Actors – leading men, especially – want their first movie to announce: I’m serious. Witness Bob Redford directing Ordinary People; Mel directing The Man Without a Face. Ben Affleck has studied this model carefully during his wilderness years; chosen his source material from an approved writer (Dennis Lehane, who also wrote Mystic River); picked a lot of pug-ugly non-actors for “authenticity”. Michael Bay mightn’t love it; John Cassavetes would.
In the kind of blue-collar Boston neighbourhood where you aren’t a man unless you’re unkempt, Casey Affleck is making a living as a private investigator. He works with his girlfriend (Michelle Monaghan), running down guys who’ve skipped on their loan re-payments. He doesn’t specialise in missing children, but he’s given a missing child case. Four-year-old Amanda McCready has disappeared and the cops don’t seem to be making headway. Amanda’s aunt asks Casey to talk to the people who won’t talk to the police, and Casey, out of neighbourhood loyalty, agrees to help.
Ben Affleck doesn’t romanticise the milieu for this movie, but he respects it. There’s a weird dignity to the people of south Boston that comes from being spat on. If Gone Baby Gone is about anything, it’s about sticking up for yourself when others seek to judge… whether because you’re poor, drunk, Irish, or formerly engaged to Jennifer Lopez. This proud/unsympathetic nature is nowhere better realised than in Amy Ryan’s performance as Amanda’s mother: a foul-mouthed drunk whom Casey rightly sees as the wronged party, despite her faults. Ryan isn’t an easy conscience-pricker, but she’s real, and Gone Baby Gone benefits from looking at her straight.
Dennis Lehane is Affleck’s real problem. Lehane just isn’t Boston’s answer to Cormac McCarthy. He’s more like a staff writer on Law & Order. He knows the jargon; how to spin a yarn; his cops aren’t likely to end up in car chases… but nor does he convince you. Gone Baby Gone has a B-movie plot when Affleck wants to make an art-house feature. There are too many double-crosses, too many outlandish motives. Subtle details (like the Morgan Freeman character’s bereavement) suddenly morph into plot points. The second-half of the movie feels like a Gus Van Sant movie had been focus-grouped, and the fat guy from Idaho said he’d like more gunfire.
Casey Affleck makes a credible lead, even if he’s too pretty to threaten a Haitian drug-lord. He looks like Ben after a night in custody. When he squints he’s more himself than when he’s smiling. His performance here isn’t creepy the way he was in The Assassination of Jesse James…; he’s the Last Honourable Man in the tradition of Philip Marlowe. He’s got a good face for Catholic guilt; pale and full of shadows. His best scenes are when he’s ashamed. When he faces down Ed Harris, he does so hollow. His isn’t a comforting morality.
As a story of child abduction, Gone Baby Gone is nonsense – but the movie is still worth watching. It’s worth it because Ben Affleck has a first-time director’s passion and an actor-director’s way with actors. He’s determined not to drop the ball, even when his story turns ridiculous. You sense it in the last scene, when it’s as if – having given that fat guy from Idaho his pound of flesh – Affleck dials the tone back down, to where he wants it: subdued. Casey Affleck takes a seat on a couch and watches television. The movie is over (don’t worry, I won’t spoil it) and he’s kept his dignity. Ben’s with him (I sense), sighing relief, finally absolved, free of Jennifer.