With their tribal loyalties and unkillable grudges, the cops, hoods, and hard-eyed women of South Boston have become the stuff of Shakespearean tragedy at the movies in recent years. The neighbourhood is a hotbed of broad-vowelled agonistes in Eastwood’s ‘Mystic River’, Scorsese’s ‘The Departed’ and now ‘Gone Baby Gone’, the flawed but impressive directorial debut by Boston native Ben Affleck.
Like ‘Mystic River’, Affleck’s film is adapted from a novel of the same name by Dennis Lehane, it’s steeped in local colour and texture, and it hinges on a lost child, an anguished parent, and a grievous backstory that sort of explains all. (Due to superficial resemblances to the Madeleine McCann kidnapping case, ‘Gone Baby Gone’ was withdrawn from the London Film Festival last year and pushed back from its original December release date.)
When little Amanda McCready goes missing, hopes are dim. She’s from a neighbourhood where residents aren’t disposed to talk to the cops, and her junkie mother, Helene (Amy Ryan), has incurred the wrath of a drug kingpin. Those are reasons enough for Amanda’s devoted aunt and uncle (Titus Welliver and Amy Madigan) to hire a young boyfriend-girlfriend team of private investigators, Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck, Ben’s brother) and Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan in an inert, thankless role), who then spend the requisite amount of time earning the trust of the cynical, squinty detective on the case (Ed Harris, naturally) and the heartbroken police captain (Morgan Freeman), who knows parental sorrow all too well.
The Oscar-nominated Ryan is fantastic, creating a character who’s at once fearsome and pathetic. Casey Affleck’s wry, soft-spoken poise is the movie’s backbone, and as Kenzie’s investigation twists and deepens, the character enters uncharted and hopelessly blurred moral territory, where sacred bloodlines seem to lose their resolution and doing the right thing starts to look all wrong (and vice versa). The rub, though, is that the film’s compelling ambiguities come to a head in a final, puzzle-solving final-reel development that is so mawkishly convoluted and screamingly absurd that it threatens to upend all the fine work that went before it.