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Originally published October 19, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified October 19, 2007 at 2:01 AM

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Movie review

"Gone Baby Gone" | Actors shine as they unmask their characters

Toward the end of Herman Melville's "Billy Budd," there's a distinction made between "justice" and "the law. " It's suggested that one does...

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 3.5 stars

"Gone Baby Gone," with Casey Affleck, Ed Harris, Michelle Monaghan, Morgan Freeman. Directed by Ben Affleck, from a screenplay by Affleck and Aaron Stockard, based on a novel by Dennis Lehane. 114 minutes. Rated R for violence, language. Several theaters.

MOVIE REVIEW 3.5 stars

Toward the end of Herman Melville's "Billy Budd," there's a distinction made between "justice" and "the law." It's suggested that one does not necessarily have much to do with the other, and that strictly following the law can be a lonely, potentially unrewarding path.

The same dilemma troubles several characters in "Gone Baby Gone," the remarkable new film version of a Boston-set novel by Dennis Lehane, whose "Mystic River" inspired Clint Eastwood to do some of his best work as a director. Once more, the city seems made to order to dramatize a series of sticky ethical questions.

While the film's first half appears to be almost a conventional kidnapping drama, the script is craftily setting up a situation in which there can be no easy answers. The 4-year-old daughter of a neglectful junkie (Amy Ryan) disappears, a tough police detective (Ed Harris) confesses to vigilante impulses, and he's reprimanded by his boss (Morgan Freeman).

When the child's distraught relatives (led by Amy Madigan) hire a couple of private investigators (Casey Affleck, Michelle Monaghan) to work on the case, complications become unavoidable. The private eyes are lovers with different agendas; she's reluctant to take the case, while he finds himself drawn into it. Their relationship gradually becomes the center of the movie.

"Gone Baby Gone" marks the directing debut of Ben Affleck, who did his best acting last year in "Hollywood-land," reviving the promise he showed in the Oscar-winning screenplay "Good Will Hunting" that he wrote with Matt Damon a decade ago. But who could have guessed he'd be such a terrific director?

Or that his younger brother, Casey, could hold the screen as authoritatively as he does here? Casey was impressive as the sad-sack heroes of "Lonesome Jim" and "Gerry," and he's been winning acclaim for his excellent work as a ghoulish hero-worshipper in "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," but his performance here is a revelation.

Often addressing the story's themes quite directly, Casey creates a thoughtful, ambiguous character who seldom does the predictable thing. Monaghan, whose character can't help becoming estranged from a man she clearly loves, is a good match for his restless, sometimes reckless nature. Harris and Madigan are solid if somewhat typecast. Freeman frees himself from the stereotypes he's been playing lately, and Broadway actress Ryan makes the most of a tricky role.

There's nothing flashy about Ben Affleck's direction. He clearly adores actors, and he's found the right vehicle to express what they can do.

John Hartl: johnhartl@yahoo.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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