Ben Affleck, the director of "Gone, Baby, Gone," has spent the last five or so years in the doldrums, searching for work that would demonstrate that he is far more than fodder for the tabloids &

recall Jennifer Lopez and Ben (Bennifer) and their disastrous film "Gigli."




As it turns out, the actor, who was clearly paying attention when he was in front of the camera, has redeemed himself with this directorial debut (if redemption was necessary). Affleck demonstrates that he has a fine cinematic eye regarding place and people, and a well-tuned ear for crisp and close to the bone dialogue.




Though "Gone, Baby, Gone" begins with the abduction of a 4-year-old girl, it quickly becomes a journey through the mean streets of Boston. It's a world that for most is inaccessible, a place where people live their lives on the frayed economic and emotional edge, where life for many is viewed through a haze of drugs and booze, and where the neighborhood doyennes take refuge in small niche bars, redolent of smoke and beer and sweat, the regulars balanced on stools like the bulky pickets of a sagging fence, hunched over drinks, crumpled bills held in place by empty shot glasses.




The writing (some of it voice over) is riveting, the acting superb, and the performances startlingly authentic, as if people had been snatched off the street and given lines. Amy Ryan, as the small girl's mother, is superb, capturing a young woman so morally and emotionally blighted that it's a wonder she can summon any concern at all for her missing child. Ryan delivers a remarkable and convincing performance, as does Ed Harris in the role of a hardened Boston detective. He conveys the damage done to the human spirit when every day of your working life is spent dealing with society's detritus. It can shrivel the soul and give justification for living an insulated life, far removed from a world that is saturated with the pain and recklessness of deeply damaged people.




If there is a moral compass in the film, it is Patrick, a private detective, played by Casey Affleck. He is hired, along with his girlfriend, Angie, portrayed by Michelle Monaghan, to find the kidnapped girl. As the two wander the Dorchester neighborhood, they reveal not only their street savvy, but how inhospitable such places are for those who don't possess the imprimatur of being solidly local. In one harrowing scene, Angie and Patrick are in a bar, questioning one of the patrons, when they find themselves about to be victimized by men whose menacing rage seems to lift off the screen. Nothing is known about these men, suddenly turned predators; yet their lives, writ large on their grim faces, are, in some primordial way, recognized and known. It's moviemaking at its best.




"Gone, Baby, Gone" is not simply a hunt film; it is far more complex and compelling. The narrative is surprising and the outcome never certain. Act three is filled with ambiguity and just when it feels close to concluding it takes a decidedly unexpected turn.