by ED SYMKUS & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & M & lt;/span & aybe this film is so good because its source material is by Dennis Lehane, the novelist who also wrote Mystic River. Maybe it's because Casey Affleck is coming into his own, with a terrific acting job both here and in that new Jesse James movie. Or maybe it's because big brother Ben Affleck -- always solid in small parts (Boiler Room, Smokin' Aces and his lengthy supporting role in Hollywoodland) -- is better behind the camera than in front of it.

With Gone Baby Gone, he's done one of the best directing jobs of the year. Hell, he even co-wrote it, trimming down the massive book into a slick, multi-leveled mystery story that keeps you guessing right to the end.

The film's unpleasant main storyline -- the kidnapping of a 4-year-old girl -- is a crime that's already been committed when it starts. Private investigator Patrick Kenzie (Affleck) seems exhausted even during his opening narration, which introduces the Boston neighborhood where it happened and the people who live there.

He and his main squeeze, Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan), make their living by finding people, usually dealing with cases that the cops don't bother with or have given up on. When little Amanda goes missing, her single mom Helene (an Oscar-worthy supporting performance by Amy Ryan) sinks into despair. But it's Amanda's Aunt Bea (Amy Madigan) who comes knocking on Patrick and Angie's door, pleading for help since, three days after the kidnapping, the police have turned up nothing.

It's Bea's action that sets the film in motion, sending the initially reluctant couple out in the streets to hunt for clues, and to clash with the cops, who don't really want them horning in on their business.

Ben Affleck nicely mashes up scenes of unbearable tension (Patrick asking a few too many questions in a townie bar, but proving he's gutsy) with some beautifully played character studies. (Ryan's Helene is such a mess, due to problems other than her daughter's disappearance, that it's difficult to choose between despising her and feeling sympathy for her.) Affleck stays true to Lehane's vile language and nasty situations.

Ed Harris (Madigan's real-life husband) is Remy Broussard, the cop who's ordered to let Patrick and Angie do their work by stern by-the-book police chief Jack Doyle (Morgan Freeman). He owns quite a bit of territory in the film, playing the role with a promise of violence boiling just underneath. Harris can be a one-note actor, but he convincingly shows another side of Doyle in an uncomfortable but powerful scene in which he's tired, drunk and glassy-eyed.

Patrick and Angie, obviously in a longtime relationship, make a great screen couple. Subtle hand movements tell us how tight they are with one another. As director, Ben Affleck also includes a number of subtleties that quietly grab viewers. At one point, Patrick asks permission to see Amanda's room, to get an idea of what she's like. Affleck cuts away to a camera inside the empty room, has it look around for a while, then has Patrick enter. Nice touch.

The plot gets complicated as more characters are added into the mix and Gone Baby turns into a tale of drug running, drug abuse and revenge. During the first half of the film, Monaghan's Angie doesn't do much talking. Yet, like the Harris character, she clearly shows that something dark lurks within her. But her character is never clearly defined. Not so with Affleck's Patrick -- he's a man on a mission, determined to make everything right. He proves early on that he will never back down from anyone, that he's not a person you would want to deceive or make angry.

The offbeat structure presents dread in its first half but morphs into shock and horror and a high body count in the second. As in all great mysteries, small pieces slowly start to move together as a picture is formed.

In the last reel, there's some business about moral issues that leans toward making the film a little too preachy. But the script pulls back before any damage is done, and impressively ends on a note that will divide viewers into groups with conflicted feelings. Is it an up ending or a downer? I don't know. I'm conflicted.

Outdoor European Christmas Market @ McIntire Family Park

Fri., Dec. 3, 4-8 p.m. and Sat., Dec. 4, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.
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