A good chunk of cinema, especially Hollywood’s mainstream fare, operates on a binary moral spectrum; you’re good or you’re evil. Gone Baby Gone, Ben Affleck’s directorial debut, is a compelling and unpredictable mystery yarn, but its principal appeal is its rejection of these open-and-shut judgments. Instead, the film unfolds with a remarkable moral intelligence, its conscience played by the excellent, unflappable Casey Affleck, building to a complicated question to which there is no right answer.
Set in a rundown Boston neighborhood, Gone Baby Gone opens in the midst of a media frenzy kicking up around the kidnapping of the young Amanda McReady (Madeline O’Brien). Amanda’s aunt and uncle (Amy Madidgan and Titus Welliver) hire private investigators and romantic partners Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) and Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan), expressing their lack of confidence both in the Boston Police Department and in Amanda’s inept mother, Helene (Amy Ryan). As Patrick and Angie investigate, they’re aided by BPD officials Jack Doyle (Morgan Freeman) and Remy Bressant (Ed Harris).
It’s an expansive cast, but each actor in this complicated web of characters is terrific. Casey Affleck turns in a great, internalized performance as Patrick Kenzie, a detective whose greatest strength isn’t throwing a punch or shooting a gun, but actual detecting, and Affleck makes those good instincts and perceptiveness intriguing. It’s one of those performances where simply watching the character think still manages to hold your attention, and Affleck hadn’t topped his work here until his remarkable turn in this year’s Manchester by the Sea.
An unexpected highlight of Gone Baby Gone is Amy Ryan, who earned an Oscar nomination for her remarkable performance. She plays Helene as a charismatic walking hurricane, her caustic racism and criminal carelessness knowing no bounds. Even so, Ryan manages to evoke sympathy for this stricken mother, occasionally letting us glimpse a damaged soul beneath the rancor. Also worth mentioning are Titus Welliver and Morgan Freeman, whose performances are loaded with an innate decency that ultimately ranks among the things the film asks us to consider, and Michelle Monaghan, who is expressive and willful as a fairly one-dimensional romantic and professional sidekick.
When Gone Baby Gone was released, the biggest question surrounding it was “Can Ben Affleck direct a movie?” After his Best Picture win for 2012’s Argo, that question seems to be settled, but Gone Baby Gone remains Affleck’s finest and richest film. His script, co-written with Aaron Stockard, is cannily structured, unfolding almost invisibly and patiently building to its most surprising developments. Affleck’s direction is equally strong, his framing always bringing out the details of working class Boston and accentuating character notes with a gracefulness that only becomes apparent on multiple viewings. If not for Affleck’s confident guidance, Gone Baby Gone’s complex ending wouldn’t have nearly the lasting impact it does.
Those unfamiliar with Gone Baby Gone’s ending are advised to stop reading now (and are also advised to get with the program already). The revelation that Jack Doyle, Remy Bressant, and Lionel colluded to pass off Amanda to live with Doyle for her own well-being is an effective one, presenting the audience with the same moral quandary Patrick struggles with: should Amanda be taken from a loving household that illegally acquired her and returned to her criminally negligent mother?
Patrick’s decision is a debatable one, but the film earns that hearty debate about the extent to which ends can justify means, the power of parentage, and what a moral obligation truly entails. The Affleck brothers push Patrick to some truly dark places, putting him through a gauntlet of death and disillusionment before his haunting obsession with the Amanda case leads him to the home where she’s being kept. Obsessiveness has long been a common trait in the hard-boiled detective archetype, but never is its cost higher than here, when Patrick’s decision to return Amanda to her mother doubles as an act of martyrdom; Angie leaves him and, in the powerful coda, he resigns himself to watching over Amanda when a careless-as-ever Helene leaves her home alone to go out on a date.
The ending of Gone Baby Gone is the rare flawless conclusion, alchemizing hard-boiled morality, deep melancholy, and narrative satisfaction into something with lasting power. Even without that note-perfect ending, though, this would still be a great film and a stunning debut for Ben Affleck, whose later films have failed to match the hunger and narrative efficiency he reaches here. Equally important to the film’s success is Casey Affleck, whose soulful, conflicted work goes a long way towards making Gone Baby Gone’s moral dilemma linger in the viewer’s mind.