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'Gone Baby Gone' (****)

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Posted: Friday, October 26, 2007 10:00 pm

People think being a movie critic is all fun and games, and that would be true if every movie in release was worth seeing. Unfortunately, trying to see the "big" movies every week means wading through a lot of unmitigated trash. Far from fun, it can often be genuinely disheartening to be confronted with such mediocrity week after week, and then have to evaluate such wastes of time in order to warn others away.

But sometimes (once or twice a year, if I'm lucky), I come across a film that makes it all worthwhile - a movie that, in one swift motion, temporarily wipes away all the boredom and disgust that comes with being a weekly moviegoer in this increasingly dreadful Hollywood market, and makes cinema beautiful again. "Gone Baby Gone" is one of those special films, and may very well be the finest motion picture I've had the pleasure of seeing in the past seven years. Simply put, it's why I go to the movies.

How bizarre that such a perfect film could come courtesy of none other than Ben Affleck, who co-wrote the screenplay and makes his directorial debut with this richly textured, thematically dense character-driven crime drama based on the novel by Dennis Lehane. Affleck should do us all a favor by calling it quits on his acting career and instead focus on his work behind the camera, because "Gone Baby Gone" is clearly the work of a born filmmaker. Affleck's direction is so assured, so informed by a crystal-clear sense of experience and location, that one would have to assume this was the work of a seasoned veteran. The fact that this monumental achievement is only his first try makes it all the more impressive.

The less you know about the movie, the more rewarding an experience you will have. However, in the interest of piquing curiosity, here's a brief rundown of the bare bones of the story: Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck, Ben's younger brother) and Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan) are a team of low-rent private investigators who get their first major case when a 4-year-old girl goes missing from their Boston neighborhood. Though kidnappings aren't their usual line of work, they agree to operate in tandem with the local authorities - headed by a police captain (Morgan Freeman) who knows all too well what it's like to lose a child to an abductor, and a pair of detectives (Ed Harris and John Ashton, of "Beverly Hills Cop" fame) who will stop at nothing to get the girl home safe.

As in any great mystery, there's a whole lot more going on here than what is first shown, and the film has plenty of surprises up its sleeve. Yet what's amazing about "Gone Baby Gone" isn't that the surprises are there, but that they are so brilliantly revealed and make such perfect sense when all is said and done. It's a complicated story, filled with hidden relationships and buried secrets, double dealings and triple-reversals, but none of it ever feels labored. Quite the opposite, actually, as everything an astute viewer needs to know in order to get to the heart of the film's mysteries is just as plain as the nose on someone's face - or the pained look in their eyes.

Four years ago, another one of Lehane's acclaimed novels was adapted for the screen and greeted with much fanfare. Yet "Mystic River," for all its good intentions, was little more than an overblown police procedural with a pedigree cast. "Gone Baby Gone," on the other hand, is the real deal: a highly literary, probing, crackling thriller in which the story is fueled not by random events and coincidences, as in "Mystic River," but by believable character motivations and behaviors based on the careful study of human nature. Like Roman Polanski's "Chinatown" and Atom Egoyan's "Exotica," it's the rare mystery, that is less concerned with the "who" and the "what," and more interested in the "why."

Since the film is largely driven by its characters, the entire cast gets an opportunity to shine. Casey Affleck - who's in almost every scene - is able to carry the film's weight easily, and his performance serves as an effective anchor for the rest of the cast. But it's the supporting players who really stand out, particularly Ed "Give me an Oscar already" Harris as the highly protective but wrathful Det. Remy Bressant, and Amy Ryan (best known for her work on HBO's "The Wire") as Helene, the suspiciously defensive, drug-addled mother of the missing girl.

I believe that everyone should immediately drop what they're doing and go see "Gone Baby Gone," but before they do, they should know what they're getting into. Despite my glowing recommendation, make no mistake: This is an incredibly dark, emotionally devastating film that should not be taken lightly. Yes, the film is entertaining in that it's delightfully suspenseful, but behind that thrilling suspense lies a bleak, uncompromising story that will shake viewers to their very core.

One key scene during the film's climax, in which a character must make an extraordinarily difficult choice that will affect not only his own life but also the lives of others, is unusual in that it forces the audience to make a choice as well - not between anything as simple as right and wrong or good and evil, but rather between what is ethical and what is moral. The movie bravely takes a definite side, but refuses to provide any pat answers to its moral quandaries. This refusal makes "Gone Baby Gone" a tremendously difficult film to digest, but also elevates it to the level of cinematic majesty.

"Gone Baby Gone" is rated R for graphic violence, language, drug content and mature themes.

Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at jwallis@runbox.com.

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