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“Gobble, gobble.” The two words that saw Ben Affleck’s credibility dry up like camel’s piss in the desert. That was Gigli. That was five years ago. Now it’s time to make the critics eat it. After seemingly punching the self-destruct button on his career, Affleck has double-whammied: first his awards-baiting lead turn in 2006’s Hollywoodland and now a brooding, doomy directorial debut of startling courage and bristling moral complexity.

Surprised? Well, perhaps you shouldn’t be. The last time this guy co-wrote something – Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting – he went home with an Oscar. Even beyond resonances with the real-life case of Madeleine McCann (which stalled the movie’s UK release for several months), Gone Baby Gone’s subjects are difficult movie-meat: kidnap, paedophilia, killing and cocaine all lurking in the dark corners of everyday life. But even though Affleck and co-screenwriter Aaron Stockard are adapting Mystic River author Dennis Lehane’s novel, one thing becomes immediately clear: we’re in Ben’s backyard.

Right from the opening shots, Affleck drags us into his old Boston stomping ground – the mean streets where he and brother Casey grew up – with total assurance. Textured in shades of grey, there’s no doubting the 36-year-old’s feel for the city as a living, snarling character.

And somewhere in this asphalt underworld of broken-glass bars, low-life squalor and drug dens, four-year-old Amanda McCready has gone missing without a trace. The cops are out in force, the news crews are flash-bulbing, the neighbours are talking in headlines. But no one can find her. Not her drug-addicted skank mother Helene (recent Oscar nominee Amy Ryan). Not even the taskforce led by police chief Jack Doyle (Morgan Freeman) and detective Remy Bressant (Ed Harris). Cue a knock on the door of Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck), a local, baby-faced private investigator who works with his girlfriend (Michelle Monaghan) to find missing persons in the shadows of Boston.

Only an older brother would have cast Casey Affleck as point-man here. But following his riveting turn in The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, Affleck concretes himself as the most interesting and curious leading man in Hollywood. Mumbling through a thick, strangled street-accent, he’s a reluctant mix of taut vulnerability and surly cool. He’s also an unpredictable screen presence: pushed too hard, his youthful face snaps out fast, angry bursts of four-letter violence in intense scenes of sustained salty dialogue that his brother relishes behind the camera.

As a director, Affleck can handle the action: a tense house-invasion sees him crank between prickly suspense and frantic confusion with jarring effectiveness. But verbal set-pieces are director Affleck’s real game, his camera probing intently into the faces of his cast. And what a cast. If Affleck can nail the place, he can nail the people too, trading Mystic River’s blunderbuss thesping for superbly detailed, focused performances. Gone Baby Gone absorbs Morgan Freeman’s fatherly persona, channels Ed Harris’ powder-keg rage and finds Amy Ryan quite sensational as Amanda’s vulgar, needy mother, brilliantly stretching a stereotype into three dimensions: health-care hazard, sympathetic victim and underclass villain.

In fact, Ryan could be some clue to how Affleck has chiselled out this dark gem. She and novelist Lehene are regulars for epic TV cop saga The Wire – and Affleck’s movie shares that show’s fearless ambiguity, grim authenticity, ruthlessly sombre tone and sharp pacing.

Sure, the mystery mechanics grind a little and the through-line goes limp in the middle. But Gone Baby Gone continues to build when the McCready case seems to have burned out just an hour into the film. False leads, dead ends, dark secrets, hidden motives and nightmarish discoveries rack up, while Affleck’s neighbourhood noir nosedives into a quicksand of ambiguities to become a bleak study of moral complexity. Terrible question marks hang over each character like nooses, while the most riveting ethical tumour is kept for the end. The turkey is a distant memory…

Back, baby, back. An excellent police procedural and a personal triumph for Ben Affleck, steering his younger brother to a performance that deserved louder applause from gong juries. Sets a high bar for Scorsese's upcoming adap of source novelist Lehane's Shutter Island, too.

The Total Film team are made up of the finest minds in all of film journalism. They are: Editor Jane Crowther, Deputy Editor Matt Maytum, Reviews Ed Matthew Leyland, News Editor Jordan Farley, and Online Editor Emily Murray. Expect exclusive news, reviews, features, and more from the team behind the smarter movie magazine.