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Affleck brothers show brilliance on both sides of camera

James Costa | Wednesday, October 31, 2007

When I first heard that Ben Affleck was directing a movie, I felt a little sorry for the guy. After starring in a series of epic flops, it seemed impossible that he could step behind the camera and make something truly special happen. Yet, my first feelings were wrong. Rather than make a mediocre film, or even a good film, Affleck has risen higher than the critics and the skeptics. In his first effort as a director, he has constructed a deeply moving and powerful film, “Gone Baby Gone,” that will compel the viewer to contemplate the very essence of what is right and wrong.

The movie is a drama, pure and simple. It has no comic relief, no funny man, no cheap laughs or stunts to lighten the mood. From the first frame, it starts hard and only gets harder and darker. Functioning as drama without gimmicks, it succeeds in delivering the viewer deep into a world of broken lives, drug addiction, violence and corruption. The film centers on the idealistic ways in which man views the world and then falls from these perceptions after experiencing the cruelty of life, only to hopefully regain the idealism that has been lost along the way.

The film is based on the novel, “Gone Baby Gone” by Dennis Lehane, the author of “Mystic River,” which Clint Eastwood adapted to the screen. From the very beginning of “Gone,” it almost feels as if we’re watching “Mystic River II.” This is not because Affleck is ripping off Eastwood. It’s simply that Affleck also understands the South Boston world in which Lehane writes and masterfully captures its essence on the screen.

While the film is still young and the jury is still out on its future appeal, it is quite possible that Affleck has created in “Gone” a film as powerful an insight into the the good and evil spheres of human consciousness as Eastwood created in “Mystic River.”

The story is complex. Amanda McCready, a cute four-year-old from South Boston, is abducted from her home. A few days go by and no progress is made in finding the kidnapper. Distressed, Amanda’s aunt goes to a private investigator (Casey Affleck) and seeks his help. There isn’t much more to say without giving away secret. However, it is a plotline that only thickens in complexity before the dramatic and classic climax between Affleck and the kidnapper.

Beyond the details of the plot, the film truly succeeds in exposing a world that most of us know little about. It is a world of ugly lives – thrown away and forgotten because of criminality, drug use and complacent despair. Helene (Amy Ryan), the mother of kidnapped Amanda, most ably portrays this world. A disastrously rough and beaten woman, she is the epitome of the snarled mother from the underclass. She is a druggie, a user, a villain to herself and her family, and yet there is also an element of sad hope and love for her child that makes her impossible to hate.

Casey Affleck delivers a powerful and commanding performance. It is clear from the start that he has ingrained himself deep into the subtleties of his character. There is something laying beneath the veneer of the character that adds an additional element of tension to the already nail-biting storyline.

The film is extraordinarily compelling. It contains a remarkable sensitivity to the struggles people face and the difficulties in doing what is right when there is already so very much wrong.