Gone Baby Gone (2007)

When Ben Affleck decided to move behind the camera for his first feature film as director, it was treated by many as not just a career shift in the vein of Clint Eastwood, but something like a Hail Mary pass to stay relevant in the movie industry, a desperate move after a string of films that were either critically drubbed, box office disappointments, or both. Even before seeing Gone Baby Gone, I’d thought this estimation was a bit harsh. I don’t think Affleck is a brilliant actor, but he’s decent enough when given good material, and has proven in the past that he can provide his own good material when given the opportunity (as in Good Will Hunting, 1997, which he co-wrote). In that, he does resemble Eastwood. So I’ve been curious for years whether all the praise Gone Baby Gone got from critics when it came out was warranted or an overcorrection because their artificially low expectations were exceeded.

The film’s plot doesn’t take long to get set up: Helene McReady’s (Amy Ryan) young daughter disappears. The police (Morgan Freeman and Ed Harris) don’t have many leads, so the child’s uncle (Titus Welliver) asks private investigators Patrick (Casey Affleck) and Angie (Michelle Monaghan) for help. They canvass elements of the neighbourhood unwilling to cooperate with police and soon find a connection to a local drug lord.

As you can see from the many brackets, that’s quite a cast, and they have some interesting characters to play: Patrick, it is implied, is a former bad boy with anger issues who comes from the same neighbourhood as Helene. Morgan Freeman’s police captain once lost his own child to a murderer and struggles to honour that memory. Helene is crass and superficial and negligent, but she does appear to love her daughter, and what we hear of her background and how she is brought to life by Amy Ryan make her more sympathetic than maybe she ought to be.

—These are the cracks; spoilers (mostly about what doesn’t happen) fell through them.—

Spoilers are an interesting thing. There are explicit spoilers that flat-out tell you surprise twists, and then there are hints that are harmless on their own, but can grow into a (perceived) spoiler with imagination and the experience that comes with having been exposed to a multitude of storytelling techniques for decades.

Gone Baby Gone was released four years ago, and in the intervening time, I’d picked up a few things about its plot and reception. Nothing concrete, but my brain put together what I had read about the movie’s supposedly bleak finale and the special noteworthiness of Amy Ryan’s performance and made an educated guess: I assumed the entire plot would be leading up to a “Dingo ate my baby”/Caylee Anthony-type scenario, with Helene having accidentally killed her daughter and covered it up. Because of this, I was not as engaged with the drug lord angle as maybe I would have been otherwise, assuming it – and the explicit namedropping of the film’s title during one of the drug dealer’s scenes – to be a red herring. That’s just what it was, of course, but in a different way than I anticipated.

I mentioned Clint Eastwood above and do so again here, because this film is highly reminiscent of that director’s Dennis Lehane adaptation, Mystic River (2003). It’s not just the setting that is the same (a run-down Boston neighbourhood), there’s a similar atmosphere. Angie initially tries to convince Patrick not to take the case, because she believes no good can come of it. She is right; it’s like she senses the deep-seated deceptions at the root of the story, and that unravelling the lies may impact more lives than just leaving it be. Like in Eastwood’s film, suspicions silently mount and are eventually unleashed towards the wrong people, and truths are withheld for no reason other than pride and an unwillingness to trust others.

That doesn’t mean the characters do what the screenplay needs them to do, throwing verisimilitude out the window. The opposite is true. This is the kind of film where the characters are so fleshed out by script and actors you ask yourself: if I was in their shoes, what would I do or have done? Even if I don’t agree with the actions they take, that they take them is plausible and realistic, and you get the feeling they struggle with their decisions. To take just one example, at one point Patrick crosses a line in the film; afterwards, he doesn’t like what he sees in the mirror (something that is visually accented by Affleck in a rather neat way), and that is something that informs a controversial decision he makes later in the movie. The audience knows the character well enough by that point that his choice is understandable.
The acting really helps, which is subdued and understated. One of the few things I didn’t like about Mystic River were the flashy performances by some of the stars, most notably Sean Penn (who, of course, won an Oscar for it), which dented the documentary “vibe” of that film a bit. This is one thing Gone Baby Gone handles better, in my opinion. The exact opposite is true, strangely, for the musical scores, and while the voice-over from Patrick over parts of the film is thematically fitting, I don’t think he was the right character for such an eloquent bit of narration.

On a similar note, the cinematography in Affleck’s film renders colours more realistically, which may be more true to the actual locations, but the washed-out look Eastwood gave his picture helps impart a sense of unavoidable tragedy. Of course, I did watch Gone Baby Gone with an expectation that was eventually unfulfilled, plotwise, so maybe Affleck’s approach is more appropriate after all.

But enough with the comparison: Gone Baby Gone stands on its own. There are a few nits to pick, but I’ve definitely seen far worse debut films. It’s an engaging crime thriller set in a morally ambiguous (i.e. realistic) world where three-dimensional characters have to make questionable choices, thus posing some difficult questions which it leaves to the viewer to answer. Whatever the reason Affleck decided to shoot this movie himself: I’m glad he did, and I’m looking forward to watching his follow-up The Town (2010), and any other movies he makes in the future.

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