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Arts & Culture

Gone Baby Gone

Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) introduces us to the tough neighborhood of Dorchester, an area defined by shattered dreams, broken families, tough luck and even tougher citizens. It's an area Kenzie knows well and that knowledge serves him well as a private detective. But when a young neighborhood girl goes missing, Kenzie and his partner/girlfriend Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan) don't want the case. Gennaro insists that however it turns out, it will expose her to something dark and ugly that she doesn't want to face. But after pleas from the child's aunt (Amy Madigan), they reluctantly open an investigation. The case leads them to some dark secrets, family turmoil, police corruption and violence.

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Casey Affleck as Kenzie in Gone Baby Gone (Miramax)

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As someone who grew up in the Boston area, Ben Affleck doesn't convey as much of a feel for the neighborhoods as one might expect. Kenzie's opening intro to the area sets the basic tone. He tells us, "Things you don't choose make you who you are," like where you are born, who's your family. But Affleck never shows us how this neighborhood informs the lives of the characters and makes them who they are. If Kenzie is supposed to know the neighborhood and its people so well, then why does he make some really bad judgment calls? At one point he and Gennaro enter a bar where they seem totally oblivious to the danger they are in or the awkward situation they are putting the person they are questioning in. And when violence does erupt, it's hard to buy the slightly built Casey Affleck as someone hardened by the neighborhood and able to take care of himself.

Casey Affleck is not exactly good casting as Kenzie. He has an interesting low key quality that allows him to convey an internal life to his characters. But as Kenzie he also needs a certain cockiness and swagger to get himself out of tight situations, and he doesn't convey that. He conveys simmering emotions and indecision well but is less convincing in scenes of action and heavy dialogue. Other actors fare better, especially Ed Harris as a cop from New Orleans who has made Boston his home; Morgan Freeman as a police chief who knows first hand the agony of having a missing child; Amy Madigan as the outraged aunt; and Amy Ryan and the missing girl's less than virtuous mother. Harris is especially good at conveying a conflicted character. But Monaghan struggles to make us believe that she's capable of being a private investigator.

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Gone Baby Gone (Miramax)

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As a director, Ben Affleck reveals a competent craftsmanship but not much flair or inspiration. He manages to deal with the ugly crime of child abduction with discretion yet maybe we should feel more disgusted and outraged by the crimes that occur. He gives us a by the book crime thriller but misses the more complex themes and moral ambiguity that could make this story resonate. Kenzie has a strong moral sense of what's right and wrong, and he's willing to do whatever he thinks is right no matter what the cost to himself or others. His actions involve personal and religious notions of morality as well as a sense of personal responsibility and notions of redemption. But none of the themes is well developed. Ben Affleck directs with a rather one-note sense of somberness. Variety recently ran a column describing a new trend of "feel bad" movies and Gone Baby Gone seems to fall into that genre. It's serious almost to the point of pretension. Visually the film is dark to reflect its dark themes -- now there's a novel approach!

Gone Baby Gone (rated R for violence, drug content and pervasive language) is compelling on a narrative level because it centers on a child in peril. But if you want a more provocative and gut-wrenching tale of child abduction, check out Park Chan Wook's brilliant Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance . Now there's a film that develops complex and difficult themes.

Companion viewing: Mystic River, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Without a Trace, Freedomland -----

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