There's Something Rotten in Beantown

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 19, 2007

One of the great pleasures of the mystery writer Dennis Lehane and of the movies derived from his books -- "Mystic River" and now "Gone Baby Gone" -- is sense of place. The books are like a tour of back-alley, blue-collar Beantown; spend time with them in any form, and you start swallowing your r's, then spitting them out as h's.

And that's what makes "Gone Baby Gone" such a pleasure, the absolute fidelity with which it penetrates and makes real the non-Brahmin, unhip parts of that really interesting urban swamp up there, with all its colorful eddies and whorls of hatred, ugliness, hostility and, of course, treachery. And the director is himself a Bostonian, no less than the movie star and former ladies guy Ben Affleck, who shows that even if he never developed a memorable performance when he was in front of the camera, he was paying attention to what was going on behind it.

The movie is taut, fast, feels achingly authentic and also terribly melancholy as Lehane chose the hot-button issue of child abduction on which to build his novel. His two detectives -- private shamuses and lovers Patrick Kenzie (Affleck's gifted younger brother Casey) and Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan) -- are brought in on a case that has the neighborhood and the cops all tied up in knots. A small, beautiful child is missing, and what makes it all the more confounding is the fact that her mother is -- well, we can't say "white trash" anymore, so let's just find some euphemistic equivalent and say that Helene McCready is "class challenged," or perhaps addled by all the tattoo ink circulating in her veins.

So immediately a generally unasked question is at the heart of the issue: Do the social marginals, the chain-smoking, three-six-packs-a-night, 15-teeth-per-mouth, frazzled, annoying, embittered nonentities -- do they deserve the same protection and service from the cops that more respectable, more bourgeois citizens do?

Helene (Amy Ryan) thinks so and so does her more respectable sister Beatrice (Amy Madigan), and so Beatrice and her husband (Titus Welliver) hire the Kenzie-Gennaro team, because they know that in the neighborhood, there are lots of people who won't talk to the cops. But they may talk to Kenzie, one of them, who never broke any heads or sent anybody up the river or down it, who has a reputation for being a stand-up guy. The movie is really Casey Affleck's, and it's his first that doesn't require his special gift for whiny, mealy-mouthed squirrelyness. (Too bad they already made a half-live-action "Rocky & Bullwinkle"!)

Would Ben have made a better Patrick Kenzie? This is an interesting question, as Ben seems more like Patrick and can play fearless toughness in a way that the slighter Casey seems initially unable to accomplish. He's also got some meat on his bones while Casey, in his T-shirts over a scrawny frame, seems likely to blow away the next time a Nor'easter drops in. But Casey grows; he never goes into the patented Casey slouch, he never has trouble with the eye-contact thing and his voice never floats up through his nostrils, even as he swallows his r's with the best of the Back Bay boys. He begins to ask questions -- of the cops themselves, at times.

The case proper has been assigned to two tough-as-hell detectives in the Ward Bond/Barton MacLane mold, played with grim charisma by Ed Harris and John Ashton, both of whom look like they would enjoy cracking skulls as well as you and I enjoy cracking walnuts. There's something so satisfying in the snapping sound! But as a third force, between cops and citizenry, Kenzie and Gennaro also earn their contempt. Nobody likes the young detectives, and as they prowl the dreary bars full of the angry white unemployed or run into the thick-waisted wives, they encounter more hostility than appreciation.

In fact, Affleck's view of Boston, like Lehane's, is basically unpleasant in this film, like George C. Higgins before the invention of Prozac. For Affleck it's a rat city, a tribal bog not far removed from the 17th century, where the O'Malleys and the O'Reillys warred for ages for reasons basically forgotten but nevertheless very important. And the cops are just another tribe of O'somethings.

As Lehane's admittedly overwhelming plot has it, Helene was a drug go-between, taking the dope here, getting the money to take there. Except the money disappeared. And one night sometime after a transaction, her 4-year-old daughter disappeared. Nobody cares much about the money or the drugs, except for everybody, and it seems that only mom, aunt, uncle and the detectives care about the missing child.

Kenzie's not Dirty Harry, hellbent on revenge; he's more of a conciliator, trying to work things out. He brokers an exchange where the various sides mean to gather at an abandoned quarry, sort it out and see that everybody gets what they want. But everything goes tragically wrong -- or does it? What's left after that is only the pieces, but Kenzie determines to put as much back together as can be put back together, no matter the course or the consequences.

Kenzie, though he carries and uses a gun, isn't a macho hero; he's a thinker, a schemer, a cajoler. In fact, Gennaro shows more gumption and guts than he, leaping off a high cliff to a wet destination to save a possible drowning victim; and the love and respect between them is well developed.

But the real star of "Gone Baby Gone" is Boston's seamier side, vividly evoked, made so real, in fact, you wouldn't want to live there but you wouldn't want to visit there, either.

Gone Baby Gone (120 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for profanity, bloody violence and disturbing themes.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company