Gone Baby Gone begins, simply--if horribly--enough with the taking of a little girl. Four-year-old Amanda McCready is plucked from her bed in Boston's working-class Dorchester neighborhood one night while her mother, Helene (Amy Ryan), is apparently at a neighbor's house watching television. The police undertake a massive hunt for Amanda, but their efforts are not enough for the little girl's aunt (Amy Madigan), who seeks out private eyes Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) and Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan) to help with the investigation. "Do you know people in the neighborhood who don't talk to the police?" she asks Kenzie. "Yeah, one or two," he answers.
When Kenzie starts talking to these people, he learns that Helene was not, in fact, at a neighbor's when her little girl was snatched. She was doing coke in the bathroom of a local dive with her heel of a boyfriend. Indeed, Amanda may have been taken by people who know Helene and want something from her. Convolutions begin to unfurl: Was Amanda abducted by a drug dealer known as "Cheese"? What might her family really know about the kidnapping? And the central question, running through the film like a vein: Is Amanda alive or dead?
Gone Baby Gone is famously directed by the (for now) more famous Affleck brother, Ben. It's his first effort behind the lens since a satirical short he made in college entitled I Killed My Lesbian Wife, Hung Her on a Meat Hook, and Now I Have a Three-Picture Deal at Disney, and his inexperience shows in a variety of ways. His visual eye is underdeveloped, for instance, and his storytelling lags now and then, especially during an awkward voiceover which connects the film's first and second acts. Yet, miraculously enough, Affleck's strengths as a director far outweigh his weaknesses. Gone Baby Gone is a thoughtful, serious film, whose strong moral undercurrents carry it beyond mere genre.
The movie's first real surprise is its backdrop of white urban poverty and pathology. It's a reality we rarely see on the big screen, where portraits of community dysfunction are carefully segregated into dark-skinned, inner-city gangstas and rural white trash. Affleck descends into caricature on occasion (in particular, when Kenzie and Gennaro enter a dingy bar and encounter what appears to be the cast of Deliverance) and the squawking Boston accents sometimes overshoot the mark. But, for the most part, Affleck convincingly captures the diminished dreams and dark suspicions of the city's white underclass, some of whom are barely making it--for instance, Amanda's ex-con, ex-alcoholic uncle (Titus Welliver)--and some of whom are not making it at all.
Amanda's mother, Helene, is in the latter category. Rude, stupid, and flawless in her self-absorption, she is one of the more repellant figures to appear onscreen this year, a walking manifesto for why some people shouldn't be allowed to raise children. This is a woman whose eagerness to locate her stolen daughter is frequently displaced by her eagerness to locate a fresh six-pack. Yet if the film portrays her without pity, it also does so without contempt. Even as his partner, Gennaro, voices her (and the audience's) disgust with this maternal monster, Kenzie, the movie's unlikely conscience, treats her with a certain protectiveness. He never says "There but for the grace of God ...," but nearly everything in his manner conveys it. These are his people, warts and all.
Casey Affleck is an odd choice to play the street-smart Kenzie: The Dorchester his brother has conjured up looks as though it would have scrubbed the boyishness from Casey's face by the time he hit his mid-teens. But, while his performance isn't as indelible as his turn in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, it's more than capable. His Kenzie is a quiet, thoughtful young man, whose outsized sense of moral probity, gradually revealed, never quite crosses over into overt judgmentalism.
The rest of the cast is comparably strong. Monaghan, who had terribly underwritten parts in M:i:III and The Heartbreak Kid following her breakthrough in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, gets a little more to do as Kenzie's professional and romantic partner, though still not nearly enough. Morgan Freeman displays his typical avuncular genius as the head of a police unit specializing in crimes against children, and Ed Harris is fierce yet subtle as the cop with whom Kenzie and Gennaro work most closely. Just as important, Affleck the Elder gets strong, persuasive performances from supporting players such as Madigan, Welliver, and (especially) Ryan.
As with so many detective tales of the hard-boiled Chandler school, Gone Baby Gone, based on the novel by Dennis Lehane, is an overly complicated journey to a somewhat dubious destination. In Mystic River (also based on a Lehane novel), the disparate narrative threads were made to align thanks to the inclusion of a purely irrational character, a psycho ex machina; in Gone Baby Gone, a conspiracy of untrammeled unlikelihood fulfills the same purpose. Yet even as the script--which Affleck co-wrote with longtime friend Aaron Stockard--stumbles now and then in terms of narrative logic, it carefully sets in place the elements of a genuine moral quandary, one from which Affleck does not shy away.
Though Gone Baby Gone shares with Mystic River the usual Lehanian touches--the Dorchester setting, the hard-bitten cops, the imperiled children--in the end, the Clint Eastwood movie it resembles most closely is Million Dollar Baby, another film that concludes with a ruthless ethical dilemma. But where Eastwood meticulously stacked the deck to cast Frankie Dunn's ultimate decision in the most flattering light possible, Affleck bravely does the reverse, conditioning the audience to anticipate one outcome and then offering another far less tidy. This is a film in which the difficult choices truly are difficult, and a solution that makes a problem seem to go away is not necessarily the right solution. In its way, Gone Baby Gone is an argument for obligation over accommodation, the absolute over the contingent. But it's also an implicit defense of people like the downscale denizens of Dorchester, wretched and irresponsible though they might sometimes be, from the easy biases of those with better, more comfortable lives. I found the conclusion of the film deeply morally unsatisfying, as I suspect most viewers will. But that, I think, is exactly the point.
This post originally appeared at TNR.com.