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The Missing Child
by Sandra Birdsell
(Available through Amazon)
"Gone Baby Gone"
For his first time out, writer-director Ben Affleck throws commercial priorities to the four winds, showing that arthouse instincts dominate his natural interests and tendencies. Adapting his screenplay from Dennis Lehane's novel, his noirishly stylized film weighs heavily under a vision of lies, secrets and corrupt agendas that will have you running for the doors for a breath of air by the time it ends. He has captured Lehane's dense perspective of Boston's corrosive underbelly, but most of us will keep in mind that the rivalry between the decent and the indecent need not be represented by an atmosphere this suffocating.
What we have is a mystery set in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston, a working class community in which a certain amount of crime flourishes. When 4-year old Amanda McCready goes missing, the media pulls out all stops to publicize (and scandalize) the case with video and headlines. Amanda's mother Helene (Amy Ryan) is on camera with all the hysterics and pleas expected in the circumstances with a slightly antagonistic shading from her critical sister Bea (Amy Madigan). We sense a gulf of judgement between them, suggesting Helene isn't the faithful mother she appears to be at this moment.
Part of this picture of alarm and fear includes police chief Jack Doyle (Morgan Freeman) who is almost as emotional about the situation as any family member because he, himself, lost a daughter.
Watching the case unfold on the tube is private detective Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) who belies his 31 years with a face that would put him closer to 21. His lean stature belies, as well, a toughness and courage that goes with the territory that he and live-in partner Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan) have taken on as a career. They are straight-shooting P.I.'s specializing in bad debts, with a knowledge of their streets and characters cultivated from childhood. In this neighborhood, cops are universally loathed.
Which is why Bea McCready, with husband Lionel (Titus Welliver) (Helene's brother) in tow, come to Patrick and Angie to hire them to find little Amanda, trusting the duo's personal knowledge of their family over the less involved methods of official law enforcement. The P.I.'s have known the child since birth, as well as her mother Helene's drug addiction and irresponsible maternal behavior. Bea and Lionel want no effort spared in the search for the baby and are willing to pay for it.
It's now been 3 days since the disappearance and Patrick knows he can add something to the bogged down investigation but Angie has an emotional reaction. She loathes the idea of taking on a case that could end with the body of a dead child. As the police seem to be stuck, she reluctantly agrees to put her calm, measured life with Patrick aside and back him up.
Convincing Doyle is another matter but they get him to agree to having the unarmed P.I.'s work together with his primary investigators Remy Bressant (Ed Harris) and Nick Poole (John Ashton) -- tough cops, hardened by experience and loaded with attitude. That changes when Patrick comes up with a new lead that they can follow, forcing them to understand that this isn't on-the-job training. The two-track collaboration brings them into the darkest, most dangerous sewers of Dorchester criminal activity and inter-personal contact with the crud of child-abusers, drug-dealers with side activities and ex-cons.
The trail seems to end with gunshots at night in a wooded area surrounding a lake -- a clandestine meeting for the exchange of money and the girl -- but after assuming the worst, that the girl has been killed when it went wrong, Patrick is disturbed by too many loose ends, lies and unexplained clues. He continues to work the problem until he strips away the layers of deceit and, in the end, faces a dilemma that tests every strand of his moral fiber and our (the audience's) sense of comfort. In the end, there's no real satisfaction to be found anywhere, just a miasma of reality.
Casey Affleck's central figure is vital and determined enough to make thoughts of a big career ahead a credible expectation, living up to big brother Ben's intentions. Despite that baby face, sibling Casey projects intensity entirely appropriate to a somber pursuit of justice, though it cannot be said he's the epitome of the genre. We'll have another look in "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," in which he plays the latter title character against Brad Pitt.
The surprise of the piece is Ed Harris who completely dispels any doubts about the sharp, explosive level he's capable of. In the framework of a slightly crazed detective who has carved out a niche in the hierarchy, Harris elevates the somber flow with revelations and sparks. It suggests the idea that his range hasn't been entirely exploited, of late.
Amy Ryan gives a credible flair to her junkie alcoholic party girl of a mother; while Monaghan is Irish-lovely but stuck in a very limited second banana role. Freeman may be the darkest-skinned "Jack Doyle" in movie make-believe, and he preserves his depth of characterization with his usual bullet proof armor, making you forget the part was intended for another Irishman.
Helmer Affleck maintains understated tension in which an atmosphere of dread is achieved as much by editorial stylism as by subject matter. He may well be a master of mood if his capturing of Lehane's is any indication. I, for one, hope, however, that he has more than one weapon in his arsenal if he's going to make a break for it outside an arthouse following.
~~ Jules Brenner