Moral ambiguity permeates "Gone Baby Gone," Ben Affleck's accomplished directorial debut. It starts with a mother who doesn't seem sufficiently upset when her 4-year-old daughter goes missing.
Having a child abducted is most parents' worst nightmare. But for Helene (Amy Ryan), it's more like a bad dream. Her worst nightmare would be failing to obtain her next line of cocaine.
Massachusetts-bred Affleck takes a street-level approach to this adaptation of Dennis Lehane's ("Mystic River") novel, set in a hardscrabble section of Boston. The story starts with the missing girl, Amanda, and fans out to a neighborhood composed of hard-working families, criminals and rough-around-the-edges folks who fall somewhere in between, like Helene.
Gruff and dismissive, Helene is a piece of work. But Ryan refuses to play her as a caricature or villain. Helene emerges as someone you might recognize - that party girl who is too unmotivated to strive for a better life and too lacking in self-awareness to take responsibility for her mistakes.
Does Amanda having a difficult mother make her disappearance any less tragic? Patrick Kenzie, the private investigator played by Affleck's brother, Casey, doesn't think so. He grew up in this neighborhood, where even a comparatively refined person like him must show his toughness on a daily basis. He knows this place can harden a person, as it has Helene, whom he recognizes from high school.
That schoolgirl has aged but hasn't matured, as she shows while joshing with Patrick about a guy she dated. Her demeanor is inappropriate given the circumstances of the scene, but the connection is solid, enabling Patrick to squeeze out information the police cannot.
When Helene's worried sister-in-law (a poignant Amy Madigan) first contacts Patrick and Angie (Michelle Monaghan), his girlfriend and associate, Angie blanches. Though she, of course, wants the little girl found, she doesn't want to be the one to discover her dead or abused.
Few sentiments in "Gone Baby Gone" are easily definable as wrong or right, but most are understandable. When Angie, sensing that this case will change their lives, argues that they've got a good thing going pursuing less risky, lower-profile cases, you see her point.
Playing characters who survived a tough neighborhood with grace, Affleck and the equally appealing Monaghan just seem to fit together. But Patrick and Angie's desire to recover the young girl outweighs their attachment to their comfortable life.
Though soft-spoken, Affleck shows convincing grit as Patrick takes on cops who'd prefer it if he backed off and criminals who might be tied to the missing girl. Ed Harris plays a detective assigned to the case, and Morgan Freeman the captain of a unit specializing in crimes involving children.
One doesn't get the sense that director Affleck guided these veterans to the same degree he did his younger actors. The always-steely Harris attacks his character's hard-bitten dialogue with too much vigor at times. Freeman assumes his fallback kindly-but-firm mode. Their performances are fine on the whole but too predictable at moments.
Director Affleck certainly knows how to craft compelling scenes, but "Gone Baby Gone" loses momentum for stretches. Its midsection offers twists without the accompanying dramatic punch. At times, you have to remind yourself that something big just happened.
Three stars out of four.
Cast: Casey Affleck, Amy Ryan, Michelle Monaghan, Ed Harris, Morgan Freeman, Amy Madigan and Madeline O'Brien
Director: Ben Affleck
Writers: Affleck and Aaron Stockard, from a novel by Dennis Lehane
Running time: 115 minutes
Rated R (language, drug content, violence, disturbing images)