Those who've spent the better part of a decade guffawing at Ben Affleck's film choices (and, let's face it, you didn't need much of a sense of humour to start with) will have to give him a bit more credit after 'Gone Baby Gone'. Those who've pointed to what he did in 'Goodwill Hunting', 'Chasing Amy', 'Changing Lanes' and 'Hollywoodland' for proof of his talents now have another to add to the list. And he's not onscreen at all: for his directorial debut Affleck has made a solid detective drama out of Dennis Lehane's source novel.
Private investigator Patrick Kenzie (Affleck) and partner (in every sense) Angie Gennaro (Monaghan) make their living with missing persons cases in Boston. Kenzie is a local with a shady past, whose rep and history means he can talk to the people the police can't reach. Gennaro keeps his short fuse unlit, most of the time.
When a three-year-old girl disappears, her aunt (Madigan) turns to the duo for help. The child's mother (Ryan) is a white trash drug mule who has been happy to leave the girl while she props up the local bar and doesn't seem too hysterical about the situation she finds herself in. With the police (led by Freeman's character) fearing the worse, Kenzie and Gennaro reluctantly agree to be the mother's representatives on the case - a far more complex one than either thought.
'Gone Baby Gone' is a film that marks Affleck out as a director willing to take risks and is as far from a vanity project as is possible. It's a wearying look at those who live on the bottom, and those called in to pick up the pieces. You're not going to feel any better about the world having seen it, but it is worth seeing.
Having co-written the script, Affleck's style of direction is unfussy and he manages to exact the maximum power out of some, but not all, of the scenes. His brother carries the film in that understated way of his, and indeed every performance from the ensemble cast is excellent. Ryan, it must be pointed out, was Oscar-nominated for her portrayal of the Mum from Hell.
While there are some questions about whether relationships and the characters could have been developed more (in particular Monaghan and Freeman), you'll feel that Affleck will only get better with time.
The other area where he will improve is pacing. The first half of 'Gone Baby Gone' rattles by so fast that you feel the story has been wrapped up all too quickly. Thankfully, there are more twists, and once Affleck develops his powers of when to slow down and speed up, his work will be all the more compelling.
Until then, it must be said that many directors with 10 films on their CVs haven't made one as good as this. And the brilliant closing image, which stays with you long after, says that in 20 years' time Affleck could be praised far more for what he does behind the lens than anything he'll ever do in front of it.