Written by: Ben Affleck and and Aaron Stockard, based on the novel by Dennis Lehane
Directed by: Ben Affleck
Four-year-old Amanda is taken from her home one night and seems to disappear without a trace.
Her grieving relatives, Bea McCready (Amy Madigan) and her husband Lionel (Titus Welliver) seek the help of two unseasoned young investigators, Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) and Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan).
The duo quickly learns that Amanda’s mother, Helene (Amy Ryan), is not the kind of mom who inspires flowery Hallmark cards. In fact she is uncharitably, though not inaccurately, called a “crack whore” and a “c**t.” As a drug addict, she probably deserves compassion, but she is a mean-spirited racist to boot. And she regularly neglects her little girl. Her list of known associates reads like a Who’s Who of neighborhood drug dealers, addicts, and perverts, so there is no shortage of suspects.
However, Patrick feels empathy for Helene, and he and Angie, who is also his live-in girlfriend, find it difficult to pull away. Police chief Jack Doyle (Morgan Freeman) is not thrilled to have Patrick and Angie in the midst of a crucial investigation, but he directs his investigators, Remy Bressant (Ed Harris) and Nick Poole (John Ashton) to cooperate with them.
Patrick grew up in Helene’s neighborhood, and his familiarity with folks in the ‘hood comes in handy as he interviews people of interest. He and Angie find themselves going down a grim rabbit hole, all too familiar to seasoned investigators like Remy and Nick, where children are victimized and their stories rarely end well. The story culminates in Patrick facing two daunting moral dilemmas.
There is much to praise here. Like many of Dennis LeHane’s stories, it revolves around a working-class Boston neighborhood, which comes to life and is a character in its own right. There is no glamour here — we see a variety of ordinary people, coping with life on a day-to-day basis, like those we encounter every day in Walmart. The story is compelling, heartbreaking, and somewhat familiar to those of us who have worked with troubled families.
As you can see, this film has a kick-ass cast. Affleck and Monoghan give strong performances, and it is never the wrong time to watch Morgan Freeman at work. But the stand-out performances, for me, were Amy Ryan, who offers a beautiful betrayal of a seriously disturbed young woman who, paradoxically, sometimes wins our sympathy, Ed Harris, as an emotionally battered police officer living in the gray area between dedication and corruption, and Amy Madigan, as Amanda’s grief-stricken aunt. Titus Welliver also delivers a haunting performance as a recovering alcoholic tormented by grief on many levels.
One of the film’s weaknesses lies in the way Patrick unravels the mystery behind Amanda’s disappearance. This hinges on a key revelation that is never explained. How did he reach this particular conclusion? Where were the clues? I have it on good authority that it is properly explained in the novel, but the movie left me puzzled. This is one of my pet peeves as a mystery aficionado. Unless he possesses preternatural psychic abilities, an investigator doesn’t leap to the right conclusion in a vacuum.
Another disappointment springs from the point-of-view character, Patrick, whose occasional voice-over narrations help flesh out the story. This film has all the elements of a character-driven mystery, and since key plot points hinge on his moral dilemmas, the question of who Patrick is, as a human being, is integral to the story. However, he comes across as somewhat bland. There is so much compelling material here: his strained relationship with Angie, Helene’s possible influence over him, and the life-altering choices he must make. These threads of the story should define him and make him a richly multi-layered character but, at the end, I didn’t feel I knew him much better than I did at the beginning.
This is, on the whole, a worthwhile film. I will warn you that the ending, though non-violent, is devastating. However, with strong performances and interesting plot twists, it is worth the trip. And it has something to say about the plight of children who fall through the cracks, the myriad ways people strive to fight evil, and how they — in turn — are affected. It also gives us a glimpse of a neighborhood in which people have deep roots, a reflection of our shared humanity.