Gone Baby Gone, a morality play disguised as a neo-noir thriller, is Ben Affleck’s directorial debut, based on the book of the same name by Dennis Lehane (who also wrote the novel Mystic River). The film asks whether doing the “right thing” always the most compassionate decision to make or can it sometimes hurt people?
Set in the working class Boston neighborhood of Dorchester, the film follows local private eyes Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) and Angie Genarro (Michelle Monaghan) as they try to locate four year old Amanda McCready, who has gone missing. Her family has hired them because of their familiarity with the people of the neighborhood and their ability to procure information and leads from these locals who refuse to talk to the cops. Kenzie and Genarro begin to work with detective Remy Bressant (Ed Harris) and Missing Children Unit leader Jack Doyle (Morgan Freeman) as they pursue the case.
Kenzie and Genarro’s investigation unearths several layers of secrecy, including Amanda’s drug-addicted mother Helene (Amy Ryan) who may have contributed to her daughter’s abduction and possible murder. The strength of Gone Baby Gone is that the film never breaks notions of right and wrong into a definite dichotomy. The deeper Patrick Kenzie digs into the case, the more he finds it difficult to identify good from bad.
Unlike Tony Scott’s awesome kidnapping film Man on Fire — where a morality structure among characters is clearly delineated — Gone Baby Gone forgoes a simplistic attitude, and instead embraces moral ambiguity, a decision that may alienate some viewers but constitutes the film’s chief strength.
The kidnapping case of Amanda McCready exists solely as a tool to explore the nuanced layers of the main characters and their moral complexities. All the characters act in accordance with what they consider to be compassionate and right. The film explores the conflicts that can arise when different views on human compassion collide. The viewer is put into an uncomfortable position of simultaneously agreeing and disagreeing with all of the characters’ actions and moral positions.
The actors capture this nuanced play of morals very well. The lead performance by Casey Affleck as Patrick Kenzie is a standout. Affleck subtly conveys the conflicted nature of his character where his feeling of what the right thing is might outweigh what he knows to be the right thing. Morgan Freeman and Ed Harris have their own set of complexities that they deftly construct but, for the sake of suspense, will not be mentioned here (if you want to know go see the movie). The weakest link is Michelle Monaghan’s performance. She can be a really good actress but in Gone Baby Gone her character is given almost nothing to do. Her role is relegated to giving Patrick Kenzie a climatic moral counter argument. If she was not in the film, the basic story would still be conserved. However, though she does not help the film, she definitely does not hurt it. Gone Baby Bone provides proof that Ben Affleck’s true calling is a film director and not an actor. His debut directorial effort conveys a poetic and extremely layered tale on the subtle but stratifying ambiguities present in moral decisions and human compassion.