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.