Pop Culture

Powerful ‘Gone Baby Gone’ has smarts to spare

Say the name Ben Affleck, and myriad images come to mind.

The loyal Red Sox rooter and John Kerry campaigner. Half of the Oscar-winning Matt-and-Ben “Good Will Hunting” duo. Another half of the tabloid-fodder “Bennifer” couple. A sometimes-solid actor (“Hollywoodland,” “Boiler Room”) prone to weak movie choices (“Bounce,” “Daredevil,” “Gigli”).

“Gone Baby Gone” will leave you with a new picture: filmmaker.

In his directing debut, Affleck has found his calling, an avenue for using his obvious intelligence while getting out of the way of his own celebrity. Co-writing the script with longtime friend Aaron Stockard, Affleck presents a place oozing with atmosphere and rich, complicated characters. He has enough confidence in himself (and in us) never to go for the safe, easy answer.

The film is based on the child-abduction novel by Dennis Lehane, author of “Mystic River,” which earned several Oscars under Clint Eastwood’s direction. Like “Mystic River,” “Gone Baby Gone” is set on the rough streets south of Boston. Much has been written about Affleck’s decision to populate the background of this gritty crime drama with authentic locals; he even gave several of them speaking parts during crucial scenes in run-down bars. It was a bold move that paid off big-time. You feel as if you’ve been immersed in an insular neighborhood, where your block is your entire world and secrecy is a critical trait.

As one of Boston’s highest-profile native sons, Affleck clearly knows this area well. You won’t find any regional cliches here — no obvious cutaways to foliage or Fenway Park. (Though he does thank Sox stars David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez in the closing credits. Maybe they helped out as grips on the set one day.)

Working with two-time Oscar-winning cinematographer John Toll and composer Harry Gregson-Williams, Affleck never sugarcoats or overdramatizes the surroundings, instead establishing a mood that’s fraught with danger, suspicion and dark discoveries around every corner. It’s depressing and bleak, but also excitingly alive and real.

  • Slideshow Photos

    Ben Affleck

    From acting in “Good Will Hunting” to doing good works as an activist — and finding happiness as a husband and father.

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    Rosamund Pike stars as missing wife Amy Dunne opposite Ben Affleck's concerned husband Nick, who falls under suspicion as an intense media circus ramps up in 2014's "Gone Girl."

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  • Image: Opening Night Gala Presentation And World Premiere Of "Gone Girl" -Arrivals - 52nd New York Film Festival

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    Rosamund Pike and Affleck attend the world premiere of "Gone Girl" during the 52nd New York Film Festival at Alice Tully Hall on Sept. 26, 2014, in New York.

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    Star power -

    Affleck and wife Jennifer Garner attend the 2014 Vanity Fair Oscar Party hosted by Graydon Carter on March 2, 2014.

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    Up on The Hill -

    Affleck and former Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold, now a Special Envoy to the Democratic Republic of Congo, met with US Secretary of State John Kerry on the crisis in the DRC on Feb. 26, 2014, at Secretary Kerry's office at the State Department in Washington, D.C. Affleck is the founder of the Eastern Congo Initiative, a non-profit advocacy group aiming to improve that region.

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    Affleck stars with Justin Timberlake and Gemma Arterton in 2013's "Runner, Runner," which focuses on Princeton grad student Richie (Timberlake), who believes he's been swindled and travels to Costa Rica to confront onling gambling tycoon Ivan Block (Affleck).

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  • Image: BESTPIX - Premiere Of Twentieth Century Fox And New Regency's "Runner Runner" - Red Carpet

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    Affleck and singer/actor Justin Timberlake arrive at the world premiere of "Runner Runner" at Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino on Sept. 18, 2013 in Las Vegas.

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    Ben Affleck

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    'Argo' -

    Affleck and Bryan Cranston star in "Argo," the 2012 political thriller about the CIA's attempt to rescue six Americans in Tehran during the 1980 U.S. hostage crisis in Iran. The film, which was directed by Affleck, won three Oscars, including one for best picture.

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    Very best -

    Actor-producer-director Affleck holds his best picture Academy Award for "Argo," and poses in the press room at the Oscars on Feb. 24, 2013 in Hollywood.

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  • Image: Ben Affleck accepts the award for outstanding cast in a motion picture for "Argo" at the 19th annual Screen Actors Guild Awards in Los Angeles

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    Group effort -

    Affleck accepts the award for outstanding cast in a motion picture for "Argo" at the 19th annual Screen Actors Guild Awards in Los Angeles on Jan. 27, 2013.

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  • Ben Affleck Receives An Honorary Degree At Brown University's 245th Commencement

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    Honorary degree -

    Affleck receives an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree from Brown University at the 245th Commencement ceremony on May 26, 2013 in Providence, RI.

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    Life in 'The Town' -

    "Mad Men" star Jon Hamm plays an FBI agent who's after a bank robber played by Affleck in the 2010 thriller "The Town." The film is set in the Boston area, where Affleck grew up.

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    Speaking his mind -

    Affleck testified about the Democratic Republic of Congo before the House Foreign Affairs Committee's Africa, Global Health and Human Rights Subcommittee during a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., March 8, 2011. He warned that cutting aid to the DRC could push the vast central African country back into war.

    AFP/Getty Images / AFP/Getty Images
  • Image: Lancia On The Red Carpet At 67th Venice Film Festival: September 8, 2010

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    'Town' residents -

    Affleck and co-stars Rebecca Hall, Jon Hamm and Jeremy Renner attend the premiere of "The Town" during the Venice Film Festival on Sept. 8, 2010, in Venice, Italy.

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  • Image: The Town - Premiere:67th Venice Film Festival

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    King of Boston -

    Affleck waves to the crowd at the premiere of "The Town" at the Venice Film Festival on Sept. 8, 2010.

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    One of the Guys -

    Affleck presented actress Charlize Theron with the Decade of Hotness award at Spike TV's Guys Choice Awards on June 5, 2010, in Los Angeles.

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    Give peace a chance -

    Affleck is a noted activist, and is seen here speaking during the Children Mending Hearts 3rd Annual "Peace Please" Gala held on April 16, 2010 in Los Angeles. Children Mending Hearts is an arts exchange program designed to give homeless kids and those less fortunate a voice. Kids in America and those in armed conflict zones around the world write letters and paint pictures for a global children’s book given to the President.

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    With fame and wealth comes responsibility -

    Affleck has earned acclaim for his acting, but hasn't forgotten to give back. He is the founder of the Eastern Congo Initiative, and works with community-based healthcare leaders and survivors of sexual violence in the African country. He is seen here meeting with community-based healthcare leaders and survivors of sexual violence at HEAL Africa on March 18, 2010 in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo.

    HEAL AFRICA via Getty Images / HEAL AFRICA via Getty Images
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    In 2009, Affleck played a congressman whose mistress has been found dead in the topical thriller "State of Play." Russell Crowe portrayed a reporter investigating the case.

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    Return to Congo -

    Ben Affleck made his fourth trip to Congo in November 2008, part of his effort to help in the humanitarian crisis in the African nation. Here he visits a camp for displaced people.

    AP / AP
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    Heart in the right place -

    Affleck was one of a number of celebrities who turned out for Children Mending Hearts, an event honoring the International Medical Corps, in Los Angeles in February 2009.

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    Jen and Ben -

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    Family man -

    Affleck and Garner walk with their daughter Violet on Oct. 13 in New York. Violet Anne Affleck was born on Dec. 1, 2005. On January 6, 2009 they became proud parents of their second daughter, Seraphina Rose Elizabeth Affleck.

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    On the campaign trail -

    One of the most politically active of Hollywood's celebrities, Affleck campaigned for Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign.

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    Behind the lens -

    Affleck directs the new film "Gone Baby Gone," in 2007, which stars his brother Casey. Based on the Denis Lehane novel, it tells the story of two private investigators hunting for a 4-year-old girl.

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    Back on track -

    In 2006's "Hollywoodland," Affleck's poignant portrayal of "Superman" star George Reeves won over critics. Affleck's role as an actor who feels trapped in the limited way the public views him, seemed to echo his own troubles as half of "Bennifer."

    Focus Features / Focus Features
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    Lump of coal -

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    Ben Affleck

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    AFP - Getty Images / AFP - Getty Images
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    Touchstone Pictures / Touchstone Pictures
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    Ben Affleck testified with Joe Kindregan, who suffers from the fatal disease ataxia-telangiectasia, on Capitol Hill before the Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health & Human Services and Education on July 11, 2001. Affleck urged lawmakers and private citizens to support increased funding for National Institute of Health (NIH) research into Kindregan's fatal disease and other rare ailments.

    AFP - Getty Images / AFP - Getty Images
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    'Room' service -

    Set in the backwaters of New York's financial world, "Boiler Room" features Seth Davis (Giovanni Ribisi) stumbling upon a shady brokerage firm on Long Island that's making a killing in stock market sales. He sees it as his chance to shine. Affleck costars as Jim Young, one of the company's hot shots, in the 2000 film.

    New Line Cinema / New Line Cinema
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    Serious turn -

    Affleck starred as Buddy Amaral, a hot shot urban ad executive, who woos Abby Janello (Gwyneth Paltrow), a struggling single mom, in Don Roos' 2000 film "Bounce."

    Miramax Films / Miramax Films
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    From left: Steve Buscemi, Will Patton, Bruce Willis, Michael Duncan, Affleck and Owen Wilson star in 1998's "Armageddon." An oil driller and his crew are hired to rocket to a gigantic asteroid and blow it up before it slams into Earth.

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    'Love' story -

    Paltrow and Affleck celebrate their win for outstanding performance by a cast in a motion picture for "Shakespeare in Love" at the 5th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards on March 7, 1999, in Los Angeles.

    WireImage via Getty Images / WireImage via Getty Images
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    Affleck took a small part in then-girlfriend Gwyneth Paltrow's "Shakespeare in Love." He played popular actor Ned Alleyn, who was eager to star in William Shakespeare's new play.

    Miramax / Miramax
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    The 'Will' to succeed -

    Damon and Affleck hold their best original screenplay Oscars for "Good Will Hunting." The film earned over $225 million worldwide.

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    Big break -

    After struggling as actors, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon decided to make their own luck and wrote themselves plum roles in the 1997 film "Good Will Hunting," which was directed by Gus Van Sant. Damon played a math prodigy with personal issues, while Affleck costarred as the best friend who just wants him to fulfill his potential.

    Miramax Films / Miramax Films

Private investigators Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck, Ben’s younger brother) and Angie Genarro (Michelle Monaghan), partners in work and love, are hired by the family of the abducted 4-year-old girl Amanda McCready. The relatives figure that no one in the neighborhood wants to tell police if they saw or heard something, but they’ll talk to a local guy they know and trust.

Patrick and Angie persuade the chief of the Crimes Against Children department (Morgan Freeman, among the superb supporting cast) to let them tag along with the detectives assigned to the case. Remy Bressant (a powerful, unpredictable Ed Harris) and his partner, Nick Poole (John Ashton), grudgingly agree to meet and talk with them, but Patrick suspects from the start that they’re not being entirely forthcoming.

This is a hunch that will hold true for nearly every single character in “Gone Baby Gone,” including Amanda’s mother, Helene, a difficult role masterfully portrayed by Amy Ryan. Helene is an alcoholic, junkie, sometime-prostitute and drug mule. She probably loves her daughter but is so screwed up and selfish, she’s also unapologetically neglectful. This is someone it would be easy to hate; Ryan makes her such a complete human being, you walk away feeling angry, yet with a glimmer of unexpected sympathy.

Just when you think Patrick and Angie have solved the case, another wrinkle emerges — then another and another. Affleck keeps you hanging on, wondering where he’s going next, but never overhypes the proceedings. And the younger Affleck serves as an engaging figure to help us navigate the story’s many turns. He comes off as a regular guy who can be both forceful and frightened, and his character ultimately faces decisions that would trouble anyone.

That pervasive sense of moral ambiguity is one of the strongest elements of “Gone Baby Gone,” and it will you keep you thinking and talking about the film long after it’s over. This much is indisputable, though: Ben Affleck is a director who surely has more great things in store.

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