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Gone Baby Gone (15)

A child is gone, but a reputation is reborn: Ben Affleck's directorial debut was withdrawn last year because of the McCann case. It still makes disturbing viewing

Ben Affleck – who knew he had it in him? Admit it, you thought the affable Affleck was a certified lunk: the Gerald Ford of Hollywood, someone you'd never imagine could act and chew gum. Well, he proved he could act with his poignantly self-deprecating turn in the Fifties-set Hollywoodland (2006). But direct? There's the surprise, and it's a magnificent one.

Affleck's debut feature Gone Baby Gone is an accomplished, mature thriller with a keen sense of moral complexity. It's also a striking showcase for kid brother Casey Affleck, who so decisively stole the show from Brad Pitt in last year's The Assassination of Jesse James.

The premise is child abduction, and Gone Baby Gone was withdrawn from UK release last year because the distributor Buena Vista considered it uncomfortably close to the McCann case. Anyone likely to feel pained by the topic should know that Gone Baby Gone is no more comfortable to watch in 2008 than it would have been when Madeleine McCann stared out from every front page. The film uses the missing-child theme to get under our skins in no uncertain ways, but it's in no way exploitative. Instead, Gone Baby Gone uses the detective format to ask some prickly questions about responsibility and the perils of attempting to do good. But this is also an extremely gripping and ingenious mystery in the classic Raymond Chandler gumshoe tradition.

Affleck and co-writer Aaron Stockard have adapted a novel by Dennis Lehane, whose Mystic River was filmed in 2003, pretty portentously, by Clint Eastwood. The central figure and narrator is cut-price Boston detective Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck), who specialises in missing persons, the sort who choose to be missing: as he puts it, "the people who started in the cracks and then fell through". He and his partner/girlfriend Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan) are hired by the uncle and aunt of newly vanished four-year-old Amanda McCready (a blond child whose photos are bound to give you a chill).

But Patrick and Angie get a cool welcome from the missing girl's boozy, coke-addicted mother Helene (Amy Ryan). Sour, weasel-faced and crackling with systemic rage, Helene – the walking definition of the word "skanky"– seems resentful that anyone should trouble her with the search. Still, the pair pursue the case despite fatherly warnings from police captain Jack Doyle (a typically august Morgan Freeman) and scepticism from the cop on the case, Remy Bressant (Ed Harris). "You got something to contribute," Bressant snarls, "be my guest, otherwise go back to your Harry Potter book" – one of several nods to Casey Affleck's youthful, even babyish appearance.

Casey's callow exterior ought by rights to undermine our belief in Patrick as a hard nut who can stare down a roomful of heavies. The actor cuts an odd, soft figure with his reedy monotone, mumbling like a baby Brando. Yet the mildness somehow makes Patrick's conviction all the more believable. Patrick resembles Chandler's Marlowe, a reluctant redeemer in a fallen world. He and Angie tangle with cynical cops, violent dealers, paedophiles and messed-up parents – and then they have to look into their own souls and ask whether the right thing to do is necessarily the good thing. I won't say any more, for fear of spoiling an ingeniously tangled narrative.

Gone Baby Gone is a disillusioned thriller about a world gone wrong, in which children suffer because – to put it in religious terms – there's too little grace left around. Photographed by John Toll with grit to spare, the film depicts its setting, the Boston blue-collar neighbourhood of Dorchester, as a kind of hell. Interiors are cramped and cluttered, stained by tobacco and despond; arguably the most shocking image is the sheer joylessness of little Amanda's bedroom. At times, the film depicts this milieu's denizens as slumping into near-bestiality: a squalid bar room is populated with bruised, veined, collapsed faces. (There's a nice touch of black humour here, as Patrick, shocked, asks, "Helene brought a child in here?" –"Mostly in the afternoon," says his informant. "It's no place for a child at night.")

This casting policy makes for one false move, when Patrick explores the lair of three especially grisly individuals. We get an extremely tense, virtuoso stake-out sequence in near-darkness, but the depiction of the heavies is misguided: if paedophiles routinely looked like the Addams Family, it would be a conveniently transparent world, but it ain't.

Generally, the film's world-view is more subtle. Even compassionate Angie writes off Amanda's negligent mother as "arsenic", yet Patrick has a lingering belief in people's redeemability, and Amy Ryan's terrific performance (which won her an Oscar nomination this year) keeps us wondering whether or not Helene really is a lost cause. Even this woman's hard, impacted crust will crack open to reveal real grief. With her vitriolic contempt for most of the world, Helene is even oddly winning in her barbed backchat.

Ed Harris is also on top form. From that houndstooth jacket on – you know, that houndstooth jacket that American movie cops tend to wear – Harris's Detective Bressant starts out more or less generically familiar, but then Harris gives him enough of a harsh, vulnerable twist to make him fresh. The real disappointment, though, is the short shrift given to Michelle Monaghan, one of Hollywood's zestier recent revelations: her Angie doesn't have much to do except look on with concern and help to set Patrick's moral compass. Still, you believe in Patrick and her well-scrubbed, down-to-earth Angie as a couple: a pair of kids out of their depth.

This is a downbeat American thriller of a type rarely seen these days: one in which the outcome, even if the mystery is solved, is a lose-lose situation, and in which a sleuth's soul is at hazard just for taking the case. This is the kind of thriller that Hollywood used to make in the Seventies: as free of false reassurance, as willing to stare the world in the face, as Robert Altman's Chandler adaptation The Long Goodbye, or Arthur Penn's Night Moves. Gone Baby Gone is seriously of that vintage, and you can stop mocking Ben Affleck now.

Need to know

Ben Affleck, made his name co-writing and co-starring in the Oscar-winning 'Good Will Hunting'. Costume prestige followed with 'Shakespeare In Love' (1998). It all started to go wrong with the overblown 'Pearl Harbor' (2001), while Affleck's red-leather-and-horns combo in 'Daredevil' (2003) was hardly superherodom's finest hour. His acting was eclipsed by his gossip-fodder status as Jennifer Lopez's fiancé: their joint vehicle 'Gigli' (2003) was as ill-starred as their romance. Affleck recouped his reputation in 2006's 'Hollywoodland' and proved his good-sport status earlier this year by appearing in TV comic Jimmy Kimmel's video 'I'm Fucking Ben Affleck'.