For 'Baby,' the mood is right, the plot astray

BY BRANDON CONRADIS
For the Daily
Published October 22, 2007

You may find it odd to learn that "Gone Baby Gone," a new thriller based on the novel by Dennis Lehane ("Mystic River"), is directed by Ben Affleck.

But look again. After all, Affleck first shot to superstardom not with a breakout film role, but with a little screenplay he co-wrote with buddy Matt Damon called "Good Will Hunting." Perhaps the surprise is that Affleck's transition to behind the camera didn't come sooner.

In any case, it's obvious a great amount of passion and sensitivity went into crafting "Gone Baby Gone." This well-made, mostly compelling film finds Affleck, who co-wrote the screenplay with Aaron Stockard, turning his gaze toward the same working-class sector of Boston that served as the setting for the Lehane adaptation "Mystic River." As with that film, it's the gritty, authentic blue-collar atmosphere that serves as the heart of the narrative.

What comes second, alas, is the plot, which even the most casual viewer will find inconsequential. Like "Mystic River," the film follows a working-class Bostonian as he becomes entangled in a complex crime involving the denizens of his old stomping grounds. The gimmick here is that the protagonist is young P.I. Patrick (played by Affleck's brother Casey, also in theaters right now with "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford"), who, along with investigative partner Angie (Michelle Monaghan, "Mission: Impossible III"), becomes embroiled in a mystery involving a kidnapped girl and the neighborhood locals and sleazebags who populate his violent sector of Dorchester.

Since this is based on a Lehane novel, there are carefully plotted surprises over the course the increasingly twisted and grotesque investigation. But ultimately, it's not the mystery that leaves an impression. What "Gone Baby Gone" does right is create a vivid and often unflinching portrayal of life in the margins of a rough-and-tumble city. Even Patrick - you know, our hero - is a foul-mouthed former drug abuser who uses his connections with the Bostonian underworld in his sleuthing.

Much of the success in this respect is because of Affleck the director, who wisely puts his camera on ordinary locals to create a slice-of-life feel. Many of the supporting performers are clearly nonprofessionals, and those who are tend to be more impressive than the film's big-name stars, particularly Amy Ryan ("Capote") as the missing girl's damaged mother.

Unfortunately, as a thriller, "Gone Baby Gone" is merely serviceable. While Affleck may have an eye for the essence of city life, he isn't adept at the fiercer drama the film clearly hopes to achieve. Many of the twists and character motivations are telegraphed too early, so when the time comes, the ultimate revelation of the mystery hits with a dull thud.

It mostly works, to be sure. Affleck has obvious talent behind the camera, and even some of his writing does reach the proper emotional mark. The film concludes with a tense, morally ambiguous moment in which Patrick must decide between preventing a child from returning to crime-ridden Dorchester or following through with his legal duty and seeing that she does. If "Gone Baby Gone" had emphasized that kind of emotional dilemma in place of typical thriller conventions, it might have been a touchstone like "Mystic River." As it is, it's a worthwhile but ultimately unmemorable watch.

3 out of 5 stars.