Strong stories well told often paint a nuanced picture of the human landscape where the events unfold. Mystic River (2003) rolled out a disturbing tale of murder, betrayal and moral ambiguity with images of South Boston and its neighborhoods that burned into the mind’s eye. The movie connected brilliantly: Mystic River earned no fewer than 43 international awards, plus that many more nominations. Into the arena strolls Gone Baby Gone with similar themes, setting and portrayals — even the same author of the source material. Does this ambitious newcomer have the narrative horsepower to stand with Mystic River… or get smacked down?
Gone Baby Gone begins at dramatic full-throttle: The search is on for Amanda McCready. Someone snatched the four year oldÂ from her South Boston home while her mom Helene is out of the house. Helene McCready (Amy Ryan) is nobody’s idea of Mother of the Year: a drug- abusing drinker whose foul mouth would make a sailor faint. Her relatives hire private investigators Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro (Casey Affleck and Michelle Monaghan) to gain information from people “who don’t talk to the police.” They encounter tough locals living on the margins and discover nearly nothing is what it seems — not the police or their street contacts playing the angles. Police officials ( Morgan Freeman and Ed Harris)Â have their own agenda and manipulate Patrick to tie a few messy loose ends. The body count rises. It leads to an astonishing discovery that raises serious questions about right and wrong and the consequences of our actions. Ben Affleck makes his directorial debut with a script he and Aaron Stockard based on Dennis Lehane’s 1998 novel “Gone Baby Gone.”
The Defending Champion
A different missing person lends dramatic impetus to Mystic River. Katie Markum turns up beaten and shot to death along the edge of a neighborhood park. This plot point focuses our attention on three boyhood friends: Sean Devine (Kevin Bacon), Dave Boyle (Tim Robbins) and Katie’s dad, Jimmy (Sean Penn). As adults, Sean is a cop, Jimmy an ex-con related by marriage to Dave. They carry heavy guilt that complicates the search for Katie’s killer. Dave’s wife Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden) tells Jimmy she suspects Dave — wrongly, it turns out — killed Katie. Too late for Dave, Sean gets confessions from the neighbor boys who murdered her. Mystic River slides to a conclusion where betrayal and moral rationalizations are buried in silence. Dennis Lehane wrote the novel “Mystic River” that Brian Helgeland adapted for Director Clint Eastwood.
Gone Baby Gone is a very strong film with a note-perfect sense of place: You feel the tired desperation that inhabits Boston neighborhoods like Dorchester and Roxbury. You can smell the grime and stale beer in Murphy’s Law tavern. Ben Affleck knows his hometown well and assembles a superior cast of performers, beginning with his brother Casey. He is remarkable for his restraint and attitude. Amy Ryan is perfectly cast as Katie’s feral mother, Helene McCready. Either or both could gain Academy Award nominations. They are so effective they nearly overwhelm strong performances from Harris, Freeman, Monaghan and Amy Madigan. The use of local residents gives Gone Baby Gone a tone of authenticity you cannot find at Central Casting. One of them, Jill Quigg, has never acted yet delivers a ferocious performance as Helene’s pal, Dottie. This could make you forget Ben Affleck ever appeared in Daredevil or Gigli.
Is it enough to make you forget about Mystic River’s many achievements? The sweep of storyline, visual power and faultless performances offer another highlight to Clint Eastwood’s distinguished career. Sean Penn won the Academy Award for Leading Actor; Tim Robbins won Supporting Actor. The ensemble acting is gold standard: Bacon, Harden, Laura Linney and Laurence Fishburne. The film will satisfy on many levels forever.
Two very strong films, but one more than the other? Yes.
And the winner? Let’s see…
Gone Baby Gone is a remarkable, effective film that will be linked forever to Mystic River becauseÂ of their many similarities. Ben Affleck has a future in directing andÂ his film may be more successful in rendering the grit and texture ofÂ working-class Boston. It is less successful in matching the pared- ownÂ sentiment that makes Mystic River crackle. That may be Gone Baby Gone’s onlyÂ failing, and it’s a minor one. You see it in the way each film resolvesÂ the moral dilemma facing the lead characters: You can admire the roadÂ Patrick Kenzie follows but it may seem slightly preachy; you won’t likeÂ Jimmy Markum’s decisions, but they feel more consistent. It’s a smallÂ margin, but enough to pick the winner, “Mystic River.”