For much of its first act, Ben Affleck’s Gone Baby Gone is atmospheric, grimy, and even a little nasty, as it presents its Boston neighborhoods (Dorchester, to be exact) as a virtual circus of losers, deadbeats, and scoundrels alike. These streets are not simply mean; they teem with despair and the illusion of possibility, where cherub-faced youngsters ride along your car and tell you to go fuck your mother, and colossal titans of girth and excess loiter with almost surreal abandon, as if brought out on a dolly from central casting. In these first scenes, where loudmouths and jerks are outpaced only by the rude and insensitive, we are introduced to a city in a manner that can’t help but grab our attention. With these people, anything is possible. Not steady employment, proper grammar, or manners, mind you, but everything else under the sun. Just as quickly, we meet Helene McCready (Amy Ryan), a woman so immersed in the lifestyle of an irresponsible piece of trash, that she just might come to define the type for years to come. Her young daughter has been kidnapped, and while she pleads for help in front of the cameras and burgeoning crowd, we suspect that this woman is just as likely to have left the girl in some seedy bar while she blew a biker for drug money. The Boston police department is on the case, but Helene’s sister-in-law Beatrice (Amy Madigan), would rather seek additional aid by hiring private detectives. It seems a stretch, but a call is soon made.
Enter Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) and Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan), a pair united both professionally and romantically, though the latter seems reluctant to take on a missing child case. She’s certain they’ll find only a corpse at the end of this rainbow, and she’s not exactly thrilled to embark on such a depressing chase. Patrick would rather hear them out, even if this family isn’t exactly the Cleavers. When they arrive, Helene is sprawled out on the couch as if indifferent to the chaos around her, and she is joined by her friend, a saucy cunt from the old school; the sort of tramp who’s about the only person we’ll ever meet who might make Helene look classy by comparison. It is here, during these brief scenes, that the movie had me thrilled to no end. Not only was I being thoroughly entertained by what civilization left behind, but I was witnessing a major Hollywood movie that dared to present a victim in an unsympathetic light. In most cases, the parents (or at least the mother) are pictures of decency; honorable and saintly when they aren’t looking deeply into the eyes of the police and begging for a happy ending. In Helene’s case, it’s difficult to know whether or not she even wants to find her daughter, as her recovery just might infringe on her drug habit. There, in the kitchen, while her brother Lionel (Titus Welliver) and Beatrice interrogate her mercilessly, she admits to buying and selling, acting as a mule, and doing just about everything that doesn’t involve raising a child. She’s a disgusting, vile pig, yet the case must go forward. It’s about the girl, right?
At this point, things are standard, but not dull (investigators meet the cops, each of whom resents the other, as if any screenplay could envision it otherwise). We suspect convention will inevitably triumph, but for a time, things could go anywhere. There’s a bit of tension between Patrick and Angie, and while we sense that he is a firm defender of the law, there’s bound to be a crisis ahead that will blur such quaint notions of right and wrong. It is believed that the answer to the case is to be found in Helene’s world, and when she admits to stealing a great sum of money from Jamaican gangster Cheese (Edi Gathegi), it strikes no one as a stretch to assume that he is holding the little girl until his loot is returned. This angle leads our team further into the muck, though Patrick is well-versed enough in the neighborhood to stay alert and alive. Cheese is not to be fucked with, and his scenes — along with his dopey enforcer Chris (Jimmy LeBlanc) — add to the perception that this whole enterprise will only end badly. And yet, Patrick’s first meeting with Cheese (helped along by Ed Harris and the dude who played Taggart in the Beverly Hills Cop movies) yields little by way of information, as he insists that he knows nothing about a kidnapping. It appears to be a dead end; that is, until a mysterious call comes in that offers up an exchange. A meeting is arranged, and all the players take their places.
But the exchange is botched, shots are fired, and from all appearances, the little girl is thrown off a cliff and into the water below. No one is exactly sure what happened, but Cheese is dead, the girl is gone, and the case appears to be closed. With the film nowhere near completion, I was intrigued by this seemingly odd turn, though my instincts told me that a conspiracy of some kind was afoot. Was the girl really dead? Did somebody turn at the last minute? I wasn’t sure, but a wave of dread started to push forward, as the cutting drama seemed posed to hinge on a “secret” that would undermine whatever power had been generated up to this point. Before that fateful moment, however, Patrick was required to have his trial by fire; an extended sequence in a house of horrors, whereby he would face a decision that, in the abstract, would have but one obvious solution. But in the heat of the moment, and faced with the battered body of another dead child, Patrick does the impossible: he puts a gun to the head of a child rapist and killer, and swiftly pulls the trigger. The man is guilty in that the evidence is but a few feet away, but he is also unarmed and not resisting arrest. The shooting, in fact, is cold-blooded murder. Patrick has crossed the line, perhaps irrevocably, though his actions are soon swept under the rug as self-defense (and honorable, as when, at Taggart’s funeral, he is congratulated for ridding the streets of a scumbag). I imagine most people would openly applaud Patrick’s actions, which goes to show that the latent fascism so readily exposed by Dirty Harry’s popularity has yet to subside in George W. Bush’s America. It’s not killing we’re against, so much as the killing of the “wrong” people. Child molesters, then, don’t seem to deserve a day in court. No wonder we’ve sat glassy-eyed as our civil liberties have been frittered away.
Still, Patrick’s dilemma is but an obvious set-up for a later scene, one that will leave everyone in the audience questioning their own moral foundations. But before that fascinating denouement — one that nearly rescues the film from oblivion — the screenplay goes off the rails in a manner that leaves all true movie lovers weeping in their popcorn. Only on rare occasions can one physically feel a film shift from good to rotten, but here, the effect is so jarring as to cause a fatal case of whiplash. The first piece of the puzzle, whereby we come to learn that the little girl did not in fact die, is dropped into place by Remy (Harris) by virtue of a telling monologue. During this spitfire speech, we learn that Remy once planted evidence to save a kid from hell, which would not be necessary to the story unless the sumbitch was to do it again. Remy would do anything to save the children, it seems, and so we wait for the rest of the shoes to drop, which they do in an increasingly nauseating fashion. Lionel is questioned and, with little pressure, spills the beans to Patrick. Remy knows the man has betrayed the cause, so, in a scene that had me scrambling under my chair in embarrassment, he puts on a mask and pretends to hold up the bar where Lionel is confessing his sins. Remy is just about to blow him away, when the whole thing makes a left turn at retarded, and Remy manages to walk out the door with several rounds lodged in his own heart. Patrick gives chase, and locates him quickly by following the blood and a conveniently discarded mask. Remy all but waves from a nearby window. That the pair end up on a rooftop a la The Departed should surprise no one, though the scene is made that much worse by the most enduring cliché in all of cinema: “the talking killer.” Alas, Big Eddie is not thrown onto the street below like Mr. Sheen.
Worst of all, though, is the revelation that the once respected police chief, Jack Doyle (Morgan Freeman), is the mastermind of this insipid plot. You see, years ago, Doyle lost his own daughter to a madman, and he’s not about to let it happen again. Working with Remy and Lionel, Doyle orchestrates the kidnapping so that the young innocent can be spirited away from a no-account mother and at last, placed in a loving home. What? And as Patrick at last realizes what is going on, he drives to an isolated retreat and finds — you guessed it — Doyle, with suitcases in hand, and the sweet little angel skipping out the front door. What timing! I couldn’t fucking believe my eyes. A story of grit and angst, a true urban experience that flirted with greatness, had become a convoluted mess with America’s Favorite Black Man as the heavy? Only he wasn’t a heavy, at least according to his logic, as he was rescuing a poor child from certain doom. The mother is the least deserving of parenthood, but by whose order shall such people be stripped of their children? Would we like our law enforcement officials to be committing federal crimes in the name of the wee ones? Where do we stop? And did the movie have to become this irredeemably stupid? It’s an interesting moral question to be sure, but one deserving of a better movie. Refreshingly, though, Patrick denies Jack and the audience a happy ending by insisting that law and order triumph, and the little girl is promptly returned to her mom. Angie hates him for this decision (and leaves his ass for it), and at that point in time, he’s likely the least popular man in the greater Boston area, managing to nudge out favorite son Charles Stuart.
And as we leave Patrick, he is babysitting against his will, left alone with his decision at last, while Helene rushes about in preparation for a date. That she’ll fuck some nitwit for blow, come home crying, and have a new man by breakfast is a foregone conclusion, but at least she has her baby. The final shot is beyond depressing — and the beginning of a life for this young girl that everyone knows will kill her spirit — but had Patrick walked away and let Jack ride off into the sunset, the law would have been reduced to an irrelevant, momentary distraction that could be altered, suspended, or dismissed altogether at one’s convenience. Patrick’s decision is the rational choice, though not the one to endear him to self-righteous suburbanites in your average multiplex. If only the film could have found a way to arrive at this no-win situation without involving backroom shenanigans and cops all-too-willing to bend the law to their whims. Must everything involve this kind of rug-pulling? Have we dispensed entirely with screenplays that play it straight throughout without implausible gimmicks and ludicrous reversals of fortune? Patrick’s character is sufficiently interesting from start to finish to salvage a reasonable chunk of the experience, but nothing — not even the cynical rewarding of a shitty mom with what she decidedly does not deserve — can ever erase the sight of a Magic Negro and his luggage. It teased us with possibility, only to end up breaking our hearts. Ben, you almost had me.