Gone Baby Gone, representing Ben Affleck's debut as a
writer/director, is a complex and morally ambiguous police procedural
adapted from Affleck's favorite book and located in the city where he
Affleck's brother Casey and Michelle Monaghan play private detectives named
Patrick and Angie, people who can sometimes accomplish what the police cannot
because they only take work in the Boston neighborhood where they grew up, and they
stay out of the way of high-profile investigations. Since they have some connection
to just about everyone in their bailiwick, many people will tell them
things that they will not tell the police.
Despite their lightweight experience, and to their own surprise, Patrick and Angie are enlisted to
supplement the police investigation of a missing three-year-old. They don't even
want the case at first, thinking they are in over their heads, but they manage to surprise the experienced police detectives by
providing some valuable assistance almost immediately, and they are reeled in.
The film has an unusual and intricate structure. After about an hour, the
case ends ... unhappily ... and the detective makes the usual voice-over
summation of how the girl was just another forgotten person in a forgotten world
and so forth. It seems to be the end of the story. It feels like the end of the
movie. If you're not watching the clock, you will be edging toward the
But the film refuses to end. Patrick gets involved in another
case peripheral to the first one. Another child is missing, and one of
Patrick's informants leads him to a place where he sees some of the suspects
he encountered during the investigation of the missing girl. Patrick dutifully
two police officers with whom he had worked on the little girl's case, and between them
they bring down the baddies, not without considerable cost. One of the cops is
killed, and Patrick shoots an unarmed defenseless child molester in the back
of the head, something he regrets, but is widely praised for.
but why is this film still running?" you may think.
There's a very good reason.
As Patrick and the surviving cop get drunk and discuss what transpired when
they took down the creeps, the cop lets something slip in his drunken
meanderings. It's not something earth-shattering, but it convinces Patrick to
re-open his closed investigation of the first case, because it bothers
him that the apparently upright and compassionate cop had told him a significant
lie about something in the case. As the film progresses, it becomes apparent
that Patrick and Angie did not understand the little girl's case quite as well as they thought
they had, and it dawns
on them that they may have been pushed into the case in part because they were
lightweights, not in spite of it. As Patrick digs deeper and deeper into the
closed case, he unravels
more and more lies, and discovers that he had been manipulated. Patrick and Michelle finally solve the case for real,
or so we think, and the
film ends again at the 90 minute mark.
And then, just as you expect the credits to start rolling, the film starts again.
What the hell?
The finale is the juiciest part of the film. Patrick finally
realized that he had missed something very big. Very, very big.
That intriguing plot structure alone is enough to make Gone Baby Gone an
absorbing movie, but it's not what elevates it to the level of art. That comes
at the end when the two detectives argue over what to do about everything they
have found. They are both good people. It is clearly established that they are sympathetic characters and in love with one another. Yet they
diametrically opposed ideas about how to deal with the evidence they have uncovered.
Each believes that his/her position is morally correct, and there is no room for
compromise. In the end Patrick makes the decision his way. Not only does it come
at great personal cost, but he will go to his grave uncertain whether he was
And there the movie finally ends. All the veils are finally removed,
but having all the information does not mean we are automatically able to
distinguish right from wrong, because the world is a complicated place.
is the kind of thoughtful movie that was popular three decades ago, the kind
which intends to drive the audience from the theater to a coffee shop
where they will argue passionately about whether the "hero" did the right things at
various times, especially at the end.
The writing is outstanding in many ways, but it has one glaring weakness.
There is really no point to the character of Angie. She is supposed to be
Patrick's coworker and girlfriend, but the script really strips away the former
and portrays her as a tag-along girlfriend who is omitted from many key scenes
and spends others hiding behind Patrick while he points a gun at someone. She
could easily be written out of the script completely, or could be turned into a
girlfriend with a completely different job, and nobody would notice her absence.
If, like me, you watch the film without having read the books about these
characters, you'll be wondering why she's in the film in the first place. I
guess the reason must be "because she was in the book," but that's not
a sufficient reason. If the character in the book is a real asset to the story, that value was not
captured in the movie.
There's good news and bad news about the character's
insignificance. The bad news is that the character and the actress are not used
as well as they could be. The good news is that the flaw is unimportant to the
film's merit for the same reason it is a flaw in the first place: simply because she is
insignificant. If she were miswritten into a major character, it might affect
the film, but since she's not even necessary, she's not able to detract from
the film in any major way. So I'm willing to set that aside. It's really a matter of
significant interest only to those who have read the book(s) and would care
about whether the adaptation is faithful. Apart from the
mystifyingly unnecessary character, the film is outstanding.
What makes it so effective is that the plot structure is interesting enough to involve
viewers who would normally avoid this kind of serious hand-wringing drama that
is downbeat from stem to stern; while the characterization, atmosphere, and
moral ambivalence are intriguing enough to involve viewers who would normally
avoid standard detective thrillers and police procedurals. It held me glued to
my chair, intensely involved for the entire two hours, and not without a moist
eye here and there.
Ben Affleck made good choices. he dealt with material he
reveres and wrote about an environment he understands thoroughly,
namely working class Boston. His first film is good enough to be considered for major awards. If there were an
Oscar for "best new auteur," Affleck would just about
have a lock on it.