No True North: Ben Affleck’s GONE BABY GONE

A look back at the movie star's stellar feature debut, and Casey Affleck's best performance to date.

Manchester by the Sea opens this week. You can buy tickets here.

Dennis Lehane has written six novels featuring Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro. Gone Baby Gone was the series’ fourth entry, yet became the first case where the detective duo graced the silver screen. It’s easy to understand why Ben Affleck chose the book as both his feature directorial debut and a filmic entry point for audiences unfamiliar with the characters. Lehane’s setting brought Affleck and his brother Casey, whom he cast as Kenzie, back to their old Boston stomping grounds (from where the author also hails). It allowed him to get into the cracks and crevices of their beloved hometown, navigating the blue-collar double-deckers in a fashion not too unlike how David Simon explored the Baltimore docks in the oft-undervalued second season of The Wire. But his adaptation of Lehane’s kidnapping mystery also saw Affleck crafting something resembling an origin story for Patrick that has sadly yet to be expanded upon in subsequent films. Only instead of realizing a superpower, the early thirty-something private investigator is forced to form his own moral code – a compass that will guide him for the rest of his life – at the expense of all he holds dear.

Repurposing Gone Baby Gone into the start of a cinematic series meant Affleck had to take certain freedoms with Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro (played by Kiss Kiss Bang Bang femme fatale Michelle Monaghan). For starters, both are much younger than they are in the books – by almost a full decade. The personal backstories dreamt up by Lehane (including Angie’s abusive marriage to Patrick’s former friend, Phil) are nowhere to be found, and the on-again off-again nature of their close relationship is jettisoned in favor of a more traditional veneer of domestic existence (Patrick is constantly reassuring Angie of how much he adores her in the screen version). For fans of the novels, it takes a little getting used to. Although when viewed objectively, it becomes rather apparent how deft Affleck and co-writer Aaron Stockard’s screenplay really is. They’ve taken the working class Dorchester detectives and remolded them to fit the moral journey both are about to embark upon. What remains is the insecure love that Patrick always felt for Angie – even when they were platonic ideals in Lehane’s first novel “A Drink Before the War”. Except in Affleck’s Gone Baby Gone, he’s painted more like a dutiful, protective mate, minus the gold band on his left hand.

The plot to Gone Baby Gone is a labyrinth populated by white trash addicts, callous cops, menacing drug lords, and a grotesque prison “family” that harbors a pedophile who wants to keep a child in their dilapidated home for his own spontaneous sexual gratification. Believed to be changing hands between these various awful factions is four-year-old Amanda McCready (Madeline O’Brien), the precious, neglected daughter of worthless coke mule Helene (Amy Ryan). Patrick and Angie are hired by Amanda’s aunt Beatrice (Amy Madigan), who can’t stand to watch her sister-in-law numb herself with various substances while the rest of Boston hunts for their missing angel. From the outset, nothing makes sense to Patrick, as every grimy back alley and wood paneled dive bar they peruse turn out to be dead ends; a search for a life that gets buried deeper and deeper beneath a pile of dying bodies with each minute that passes. By this point in his career, Lehane had already seen one novel adapted by Clint Eastwood (Mystic River), and would later have his prose taken a swing at by none other than Martin Scorsese (Shutter Island). However, neither of those master auteurs would come close to capturing the author’s pulp ambiance quite like Affleck, who lets the street level neo noir organically develop until it reaches a rather shocking conclusion.

2007 was a critical year for Casey Affleck’s career, as his two greatest roles to date were showcased in pictures released less than a month apart. While his turn as the titular yellow belly in Andrew Dominik’s stone masterpiece The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford (which still stands as perhaps the greatest film of the early aughts) earned Casey a Best Supporting Actor Nomination, Patrick Kenzie is such a natural fit for the thespian that it’s hard not to wonder which bit is better. Robert Ford is certainly the showier act; all posture and intonation, a wonder of meek transmutation where Casey manages to become the physical manifestation of melancholic regret. Kenzie, on the other hand, asks him to convert into a chameleon from scene to scene; surveying the landscape and then utilizing his ability to read the personalities he’s surrounded by in order to adapt accordingly. There are a number of remarkable moments where Patrick seems completely outmatched, but he’s simply waiting for his turn to flip the tables on everyone, from commanding Police Captain Jack Doyle (Morgan Freeman) to psychotic small time criminal overlord Cheese (Edi Gathegi). Kenzie’s the guy who knows he’s not going to win a fight with his fists, so he’s got to back his opponents into corners they can’t escape from unless they beg him not to transform his numerous neighborhood contacts into weapons of mass destruction. It’s a wonder of naturalistic acting, and a shame we haven’t seen Casey slip Patrick’s skin back on for further Boston adventures pursuing corrupt politicians and serial murderers.

The incredible supporting cast only helps to augment Casey Affleck’s performance, as everyone involved is bringing quite colorful A-Game. Amy Ryan is a despicable sentient garbage pile, relaying horror stories of carting her daughter along on interstate drug deals. Nevertheless, Affleck doesn’t miss a moment to let the viewer feel the pain of a mother who’s lost her child amidst a concrete Hellscape. Ed Harris and John Ashton (bringing a bit of that old Martin Brest magic back) create lived-in shorthand between two rumpled suit dicks, doggedly pursuing any lead they can in hopes of finding little Amanda. Titus Welliver sports facial hair fit for an Old West God as Helene’s sobriety-obsessed brother. But the real showstopper is the single-monikered Slaine, who plays Patrick and Angie’s consummate coke dealing informant, Bubba. Slaine is all streetwise smiles and side-eyes; the undisputed king of this motherfucking jungle. Together, the ensemble breathes life into Kenzie and Gennaro’s neighborhood, each exuding a certain level of menace in the name of selfish self-preservation.

Meanwhile, the city of Boston plays a role unto itself, with Affleck and cinematographer John Toll (The Thin Red Line) exploiting its projects for metric tons of seedy splendor. Their inhabitants are lumpy and unwashed; many non-actors appearing in bit parts, gawking at crime scenes from their barely standing porches as they crack beers. Gone Baby Gone is a miracle of location shooting, manufacturing a tangible texture that any sound stage couldn’t hope to replicate. We’re stuck in the middle of these fly infested kitchens and spliff-stinking pool halls, hanging out with the locals; most of whom will likely never leave Quincy, Chelsea or Dorchester. There’s a puffed chest pride to the manner in which Affleck presents these people, coupled with lines of narration that hover over early scenes like morning clouds comprised of plainspoken poetry. “When your job is to find people who are missing, it helps to know where they started,” Kenzie pronounces with omnipotent grace and, in a way, it feels like Affleck bull-horning a return to his own roots. These are the folks he grew up with; who cheered when he won the Oscar “with Matt” and watched him ham it up in Michael Bay action vehicles like Armageddon and Pearl Harbor. After experiencing his own fall from grace – following “Bennifer” and a string of studio bombs – Gone Baby Gone is as much a love letter to those he left behind as it is a riveting, violent romp. These are the real friends of Eddie Coyle, and Affleck’s delighted to re-make their acquaintance.

During the final moments of Gone Baby Gone, everything changes for Kenzie and Gennaro, and not necessarily for the best. When faced with a decision that shakes him to his very core, Patrick is forced to evaluate and stand by a set of principles, before making a choice that will affect numerous lives for many, many years. Depending on which direction he takes, Angie may never look at him the same way; her love sacrificed on the altar of best intentions. Concurrently, a group of honorable men will be ruined. Or – were he to turn around and say nothing – everything stays the same, injury only being inflicted to a societal member whose behavior has been suspect at best. That’s the genius of Lehane’s story – it makes you, the audience member, question what you would do if faced with the same ethically grey dilemma. Technically, there is no “right answer” to the question posed, but that doesn’t mean Patrick won’t be judged for his response for the rest of his days. Gone Baby Gone is a tale that demonstrates the notion that there is no such thing as True North when it comes to human beings navigating the darkened terrain of existence. All they can hope is that their gut and brain align in order to make a judgment call they can live with, and that some sort of justice is served by their righteous action.