Gone Baby Gone (2007)
Watching this film prompts the question of why we watch films. It would be too easy to start and stop with the idea that films are something we find amusing or diverting. This would pitch the expectation at a level equivalent to something relatively light and frothy. While it would not deny the possibility of some intellectual weight, the “intelligence” of the script or the performances would be less than obvious, perhaps something we might only pick up in the post mortem when the other ideas had been fully explored. Yet Gone Baby Gone manages the clever trick of being a very sophisticated exploration of a moral dilemma and entertaining, i.e. it has people investigating a kidnapping and shooting at each other (or into the air at one point). So, in the conventional sense, it’s pandering to an audience that likes thrillers while inviting them to look beyond the superficial action and see something more interesting to talk about in the pub afterwards.
As an example, let’s take a brief look back at a previous morality tale. The Accused (1988) has Sarah Tobias (Jodie Foster) raped by multiple attackers. The point of the film is to explore the gray area of liability for spectators who cheer on the rapists. If the original producers were to make a sequel, they might suppose Sarah is pregnant and proposes to have an abortion. Relying on his religiously inspired moral stance against abortion, one of the rapists asserts his paternal rights and petitions the court for an injunction to prevent the abortion. Well, we all know the action would fail. While the child is still a part of the mother’s body, it’s her right to determine what should happen. Fathers have no status when it comes to deciding the fate of their potential children. This is not to say there may be local laws controlling the legality of the abortion but, for the purposes of our potential drama, let’s assume that the victims of rape are allowed to abort.
If someone were to make this sequel, it would run the risk of being preachy on an inflammatory issue. In many countries, abortion is highly controversial and no matter what line the script took, it would upset one side of the polarised debate. So, coming back to Gone Baby Gone, it invites the viewers to consider a simple question. Assuming kidnapping a child is always a crime, are there circumstances in which the commission of this crime would be in the best interests of the child? This is a film based on the book of the same name by Dennis Lehane. It’s the fourth in the series featuring Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) and Angela Genaro (Michelle Monaghan). The couple operate as private detectives, specialising in finding those who have disappeared. Against her better judgement, they take the case and immediately find themselves pitched into a difficult family situation. It’s immediately obvious the mother, Helene McCready (Amy Ryan) is a hopeless addict who cares nothing for her daughter. As more evidence emerges, it appears this mother may have been involved in various criminal activities during which she came into possession of a large sum of money. A criminal interested in recovering this money would have a motive for kidnapping her daughter.
Once our private detectives get on the trail, they find two senior police officers more than helpful: Ed Harris and John Ashton. Their boss, Jack Doyle (Morgan Freeman) also seems to mellow as the investigation proceeds. A second child then goes missing and a tip comes to Patrick Kenzie identifying the possible abductor. This results in more co-operation with the police, but the outcome is not what Patrick might have hoped for. Since private detective heroes must always be competent, they eventually find the girl but must then decide what to do about it. If you take the view the interests of the child are the first and paramount consideration, you might condone the crime and leave her where she is. But if you trust the system, you might call in the police, send the kidnappers to jail, and wait for the state to declare the mother unfit and find a good foster home. Except who would trust the state with something as important? Only someone self-righteous who would always want to uphold the letter of the law. Which is why I mentioned the abortion issue. One side assets its right to impose its morality on the mother in the belief it knows best. Here our two private detectives get to decide what’s best for the child. For those of you who like to follow loose ends, the question of what happened to the kidnapped child is explained by Dennis Lehane in Moonlight Mile, published in 2010.
Gone Baby Gone is elegantly adapted for screen and directed by Ben Affleck making an auspicious debut behind the camera. Although there’s not a little nepotism in the casting of Casey Affleck as Patrick Kenzie, the result is impressive. Similarly, Ed Harris puts in one of his better performances, the two actors standing out in what is otherwise an ensemble cast — sadly, Michelle Monaghan is not given much to do as Angela Genaro. This is more at the brain food end of the entertainment scale but, by my standards, that make it one of the better films of the last decade. It should also be said that Dennis Lehane is a consistently impressive author and, if you have not already done so, you should read his books.
For a review of another film directed by Ben Affleck, see Argo.