Pearl Harbor sucked. That much Team America told us. But it turns out we missed Ben Affleck more than we really knew.
Hollywoodland’s Venice Festival win proved that he didn’t need any more acting lessons. Gone Baby Gone, though, caps his comeback with the kind of honest-to-goodness homecoming that gives a guy a shot at cleaning his slate.
“Your city, your neighbourhood, your family”: these are the keenly played keynotes in Affleck’s adaptation of crime-writer Dennis Lehane’s novel. The neighbourhood is blue-collar Boston, realised with a grubbily attention-gripping veracity that grounds the plot’s trickier twists.
The family is that of Amanda, a missing four-year-old, whose aunt hires PIs Patrick and Angie (Casey Affleck and Michelle Monaghan) to probe the world of the child’s persuasively skanky mum (Supporting Oscar nominee Amy Ryan) for skanky clues as to her whereabouts.
They’re hired because they know the ‘hood, and as Patrick is our eyes, Ben needs to know it too. Duly, he goes deeper than local colour, inhabiting this terrain with more downbeat, dusty conviction than Clint Eastwood could manage in his own Lehane riff, Mystic River.
The “Addams Family deal” of a paedophile den is somewhat overstated but the bars, backstreets and tenement blocks feel lived-in, like the way Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye ‘occupied’ mid-1970s Los Angeles. The titles of the DVD’s two featurettes are Going Home and Capturing Authenticity: sturdy roots matter here.
Does Madeleine McCann’s awful story ram the plot home for a British audience too? Perhaps, but Gone Baby Gone would be a gripper without any tragic real-life parallels.
The cast and writing are the real deal, for starters: with a screenplay this chewy, the fearsome Ryan (a walking dictionary definition of “coke fiend”), detective Ed Harris, police chief Morgan Freeman and a palpably pent-up Affleck Junior raise their games. What’s more, Affleck Senior maps raw ethical terrain by honestly attending to the soul-stretching tensions between moral choice and effect.
This is cinema with a sense of consequences, sculpted to contort fixed presumptions. Not just those we have about Affleck, granted, but still, the doofus from Daredevil did make it after all.
Result? Copybook cleaned. Keep it up and the gobble-gobble Gigli jokes will be gone, baby, gone.