Past the Popcorn provides South King Media with exclusive reviews of Theatrical and Home Video entertainment. We aim to dig just a little deeper than the surface of what we watch.

If you are not yet convinced that tabloid magnet Ben Affleck could possibly direct a well-made film—in spite of his accolades and awards—you really should put those doubts to rest. In Gone Baby Gone, Affleck delivered one of the best films of the century so far.

The predecessor that Gone Baby Gone most resembles is Mystic River; not surprisingly, both films are based on books by the same author. Yet—dare it be said?—Affleck’s film feels much more authentic and nuanced than Clint Eastwood’s Oscar-winning effort. Both stories are set in the Boston area, and clearly Affleck’s home-town familiarity lends some confidence to his directorial debut. But there’s more than that at work here.

First, Affleck shrewdly casts his brother Casey in the lead role as Patrick, a private investigator. As both Afflecks demonstrated with close friend Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting years ago, not only do they know Boston, they know how to communicate what “feels like” Boston—at the very least, that is, they present a consistent and personal vision of Boston’s residents. And Casey is here just laconic enough and just engaged enough to feel thoroughly at home in this role. He’s never been better, and that includes both his standout performance in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and his Oscar-winning role in Manchester by the Sea.

But the other thing communicated by Gone Baby Gone is a sense of love, compassion, and respect for the average folk of the city. Where Mystic River’s protagonists come off as superior and above the fray, almost blue-collar elite, Affleck’s second-tier cast and extras feel so real because they are real Bostonians. “I always believed it’s the things you don’t choose that make you who you are,” intones Patrick over the opening montage; and the camera dollies down neighborhood streets, past average joes—fat people, skinny people, and children, lots of children—and outside their stores, bars, brownstones, and churches. And one of the things that Patrick has chosen is to make his living looking for people, and not the type that others usually pay detectives to find: no, Patrick is always searching for “people who started out in the cracks, and then fell through.”

At the center of the story is one of those types: a crack-addict whose young daughter has been abducted. She’s a “loser,” and hangs out with equally “worthless” codependent friends who reinforce all of her bad habits and profanely abuse anyone who dares to cast aspersions on her character—or anyone who uses phrases like cast aspersions upon. When the early days of the police investigation prove unsuccessful, her brother and sister-in-law bring Patrick and his partner into the mix.

So right off the bat, this is noir-ish territory. Who’s the guilty party here? Is it the irresponsible crack-smoking, hard-partying mother who leaves her daughter unattended while out on benders? Is it the crack-addict’s judgmental sister-in-law, who would love nothing better than having some divine judgment befall the degenerate? Is it the brother, who seems to have something to hide? How about the police captain, whose own daughter was slain by an abductor? Is it a husband and wife team of low-life parole-jumpers who associate with a known sex-offender? And what’s the deal with Remy, one of the two police detectives assigned to the case, who seems just a little too deeply into everyone else’s business?

The beautiful thing about Gone Baby Gone—and I do mean profoundly beautiful, if deeply disturbing—is that none of these characters gets an easy pass. Further, Affleck lets no one in the audience off the hook here, either. Name a Hot Topic: police corruption; pedophilia; parole of sex offenders; vigilante justice; drug and alcohol abuse; justifiable homicide; murder; parental rights; media exploitation; child neglect and abandonment; human depravity, forgiveness, and mercy. Whatever you think about any of these issues, your thinking will be extremely challenged if not outright deconstructed—and Affleck offers no easy answers for any of these dilemmas. The bottom line will be: whatever you have thought up to this point—whatever choices or options you think you’ve eliminated because they’re not realistic or moral enough—you haven’t thought things through thoroughly enough, and you haven’t walked far enough in other folks’ shoes.

What’s particularly refreshing is that Affleck’s film betrays no ideological bias. He doesn’t lay blame at the door of philosophical materialism; he embraces no reactionary Post-modern critique; the Catholic Church is there, in the background, in the form of institutions like Our Sister of Infinite Mercy hospital and advice that Patrick solicits from his priest. But religious idealism is tempered by the profane practicalities of the mean streets, without pandering to those realities. Self-determinism doesn’t get any easy pass, either, nor does blithe humanistic social-mindedness. Instead, it’s all real-world paradox of the sort offered up by Jesus when he told his disciples they would be like “sheep amongst wolves,” and would therefore need to be as “wise as serpents and as innocent as doves.” How does one process that, when confronted with horrors like these?

The only clear answer that Gone Baby Gone rejects is the notion that, somehow, a course can be taken that’s “good news for everybody.” Affleck presents a vision that’s rarely achieved outside changing-the-past mind-benders like The Butterfly Effect and Deja VuGone Baby Gone, which packs as much detailed story into its running time as three films of comparable length, offers a three-act structure that allows Patrick to arrive at his own conclusions—and then realize, more than once, that he has indeed been defined by the things he didn’t choose. And he is, at every turn and by definition, wrong, baby, wrong.

And that’s the only right answer. “Shame is God’s way of telling you what you did is wrong,” Patrick concludes at one point. Dead on. And this film indicts everyone. We all have much of which to be ashamed, and we all have much to learn—about ourselves, and about other people.

Don’t shy away from the fact that this is a “difficult” film. Ben Affleck—who clearly has better intuition as a writer and director than as an actor—has given us the rare work of art which truly deserves praise and attention, even if it is neither perfect nor particularly “enjoyable.” If we can’t challenge ourselves to sit through a film like this, why do we even bother to build theaters?

Gone Baby Gone is now included with your Netflix subscription. You can also stream at YouTube.

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