Child-abduction stories are a sticky proposition, because their inherent suspense invites the most sickening sort of exploitation, as audiences are left to wonder what's being done to an innocent, defenseless creature. But Gone Baby Gone, based on the Dennis Lehane novel and directed with steady assurance by Ben Affleck, works hard to defuse this tension in favor of a deeper, more unexpected meditation on parenthood. Behind the camera, Affleck's presence is as modest and workmanlike as his performances in front of it have often been brash; as a Bostonian and a new father, he has a strong connection to the material that makes itself felt in the well-tended performances and the authentic portrait of working-class Dorchester. There's little pretense to it, and none of the Method distractions that nearly sabotaged Clint Eastwood's recent Lehane adaptation Mystic River. The film simply dives headlong into a swamp of ambiguities and considers how to do right in an imperfect situation.
Casey Affleck probably wouldn't be the first casting choice of many filmmakers who aren't related to him, but the qualities that make him such a curious leading man make him the right choice, too. A more assertive actor might not have suggested what a predicament his character's private detective gets himself into when he agrees to look into an abduction case. Though the police, led by unit chief Morgan Freeman and his ace detective Ed Harris, are using all their resources to track down the missing daughter of junkie mother Amy Ryan, the girl's aunt (Amy Madigan) hires Casey Affleck and his partner/girlfriend Michelle Monaghan to pursue a supplemental investigation. The P.I.'s access to Dorchester's seamier elements ("the guys who don't talk to police") gives him an advantage, but he naturally bumps heads with the authorities as a result.
Though Ryan dutifully plays the role of tearful parent for the camera, her negligence and substance abuse are nearly as much an issue as her lost child, which provides a fascinating subtext to the investigation. If the girl is found, her return won't exactly be the feel-good story of the year. On this point, Gone Baby Gone has a gratifyingly realistic take on what child-welfare issues are really like, and it makes things more complicated for the people in charge of tracking her down. Credit for the pungent dialogue, which is nearly as salty as The Departed's and often as funny, should probably go more to Lehane than to the screenplay co-written by Affleck and Aaron Stockard, but Affleck gets near-perfect performances from his actors, with Harris a particular standout as a detective whose emotions get the better of him. Though its procedural goes a little soft in the middle, Gone Baby Gone quietly accumulates in power, leading to one of the more subtly devastating final shots in recent memory.