Claire Folger, Miramax Films
Casey Affleck is private investigator in "Gone Baby Gone." The film marks impressive directorial debut of star's brother, Ben Affleck.
GONE BABY GONE — *** 1/2 — Casey Affleck, Michelle Monaghan, Ed Harris; rated R (profanity, drugs, violence, vulgarity, slurs, brief gore)

The only way "Gone Baby Gone" could be more faithful to its source material would be to simply photograph the pages of Dennis Lehane's best-selling mystery/crime novel.

As it is, the movie nails both the raw tone and even more raw language of Lehane's book, even if certain changes had to be made to the story (characters have been excised or combined).

But the real surprise here may be how assured and confident a directorial debut it is for Ben Affleck. Although Affleck won an Oscar for co-writing 1997's "Good Will Hunting," his career so far has offered no hint that he had something like this terrific film in him.

"Gone Baby Gone" is a suspenseful, well-acted thriller, though there are certainly some disturbing elements to it. The very R-rated language alone may be enough to turn off some viewers.

The film is based on the fourth installment in a series of five books about Boston-based private investigators Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro, played here by Casey Affleck (Ben's brother) and Michelle Monaghan. Patrick and Angie have been asked to help investigate the disappearance of a young girl, Amanda McCready (Madeline O'Brien).

Both the detectives in charge of the case (Ed Harris and John Ashton) and the local police captain (Morgan Freeman) are hesitant to share any information with them, but Patrick and Angie do know the neighborhood and are able to get people to talk, including the girl's mother, Helene (Amy Ryan), who has been holding certain things back from the detectives.

This is a much better film than Clint Eastwood's overpraised 2003 adaptation of Lehane's "Mystic River." "Gone Baby Gone" feels more real and less showy than that movie, although it still has its share of thoughtful and thought-provoking moments.

Also, director Affleck has assembled a terrific ensemble cast. Freeman and Harris are great, as always, and so is the younger Affleck.

But the real standout is probably Ryan. Hers is by far the trickiest role, as a drug-addled, irresponsible mother. And yet she's sympathetic, thanks to Ryan's convincing, layered performance.

"Gone Baby Gone" is rated R for strong sexual language (profanity, crude slang terms and other suggestive talk), drug references and use (marijuana and cocaine), some strong violence (shootings, violence against women, and child-in-peril elements), slurs based on race and sexual preference, and brief gore. Running time: 114 minutes.


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