LITTLE ROCK The Ben Affleck jokes stop now.
For all its implausibility and an incredible exploding script that throws plot points into outer space before gathering them back in a great gravitational rush, Gone Baby Gone is a terrific, gripping and startlingly effective thriller. The power of the drama and the excellence of the realization obliterate all objections.
It's best not to say too much about the story other than it concerns the search for a little girl missing from Boston's Dorchester area. After three days of fruitless search the girl's desperate aunt Bea McCready (Amy Madigan) and her reformed druggie husband (Titus Welliver) engage the services of two young private investigators, Patrick Kenzie (the director's younger brother, Casey Affleck) and his girlfriend partner Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan), who are deeply embedded in the working-class neighborhood.
Gennaro objects, in part because they aren't that type of investigators - their typical job involves tracking down deadbeats who've skipped out on jet ski payments - but mostly because she doesn't want the emotional freight that comes with such somber work. The aunt persists and Kenzie wants the work - it's mostly their local knowledge the aunt wants to tap anyway.
Director Affleck possesses the same kind of local knowledge, and it's the specificity of detail in Gone Baby Gone that commands belief even in the face of hairpin story spins and tricky convolutions.
Adapted from a novel by Dennis Lehane, the movie mines rich veins of dread and doubt before settling in on a meditation on selfdetermination and moral ambiguity. Kenzie ends up having to makea choice with which many moviegoers will disagree. The child's mother, Bea's sister-in-law Helene (Amy Ryan), is not the ideal single parent, and it soon becomes apparent that at the time the child disappeared Helene was snorting coke with her lowlife boyfriend. And that the two may have provoked the ire of a dangerous drug lord, who could have seized the child in retribution.
Meanwhile, as the hired representatives of the missing child's family, Kenzie and Gennaro are allowed to observe the police investigation, bringing them shoulder to shoulder with highly motivated Detective Remy Bressant (Ed Harris) and his hulking partner Nick (John Ashton). Initially guarded, the cops soon concede that Kenzie's contacts - and the simple fact he's not a cop - could be useful in the investigation.
All the main performances - including Morgan Freeman as a high-ranking cop - are first-rate. And some of the minor ones, such as a friend of the missing girl's family who acknowledges her old high school mate Gennaro bynoting that she's "still a little conceited" - are close to perfect.
If you're playing the Oscar nomination game, there may be three dark horse contenders here - scraped-out Harris, enjoyable Ryan and usually weaselly Affleck, who makes a surprisingly convincing hero. While you may not agree with all his character's decisions, they do follow a certain moral logic: Kenzie is loathe to substitute his judgment for God's - though in at least one case he does, with chilling finality.
The Affleck behind the camera nails the film in a credible place and time, here and there cutting away to faces that can't be anything but authentic. He's made a movie like a tone poem, a blue howl through a cold graveyard beneath a bone-white moon. It's spooky, but underpinned by serious concern and care.
MovieStyle, Pages 43, 48 on 10/19/2007