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A child is gone, but a reputation is reborn: Ben Affleck's directorial debut was withdrawn last year because of the McCann case.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The premise is child abduction, and Gone Baby Gone was withdrawn from UK release last year because the distributor Buena Vista considered it uncomfortably close to the McCann case.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'.

Arts and Entertainment
Larry David and Rosie Perez in ‘Fish in the Dark’
theatreReview: Had Fish in the Dark been penned by a civilian it would have barely got a reading, let alone £10m advance sales
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
    Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

    Lost without a trace

    But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
    Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

    Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

    Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
    International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
    Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

    Confessions of a planespotter

    With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
    Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

    Russia's gulag museum

    Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
    The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

    The big fresh food con

    Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
    Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

    Virginia Ironside was my landlady

    Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
    Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

    Paris Fashion Week 2015

    The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
    8 best workout DVDs

    8 best workout DVDs

    If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
    Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

    Paul Scholes column

    I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
    Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
    Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

    Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

    The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable