The director is Ben Afleck, and it's his first time directing. We're thinking Gigli, or maybe Jersey Girl. What we get instead surprisingly is another Mystic River. The comparison with that movie is there since both films are based on novels by Dennis Lehane.
Gone Baby Gone is a riveting thriller, sizzling with snappy, though often four-lettered, dialog. ("He lied to me. Now I can't think of one reason big enough for him to lie about that's small enough not to matter.") A crackerjack story that is multifaceted and tremendously acted, this has to be the best movie of 2007.
Casey Afleck and Michelle Monaghan star as private investigators and lovers, Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro. When four year old Amanda McCready is kidnapped from her home and the Boston police cannot find her, her relatives hire Kenzie and Gennaro to help the police in their investigation. The two tough detectives working the case are not thrilled to have a puppy-dog 30 year old on their team, but Kenzie is deeper and tougher than he appears. He grew up in the neighborhood, and knows the seamier side of Boston. The locals talk to him even when they are closed to the cops. One minor complaint is that Kenzie, scrawny fellow that he is, just seems too small to act so macho amidst guys twice his size. But perhaps that is the only way he has managed to survive these mean streets until today.
At first Gennaro does not want them to take on the case -- it has the potential for too much tragedy. Monaghan has a real role here, not just the female love interest she played in MI3 or Heartbreak Kid, and she sinks her teeth in. She is an intelligent and smart foil to Kenzie's blunt hammer approach. But after visiting the home she and Kenzie are persuaded to take the case.
The story appears cut and dried. A missing girl. A Boston-wide search. A grieving mother. Then come the twists and the other great actors. Ed Harris appears as one of the veteran detectives, Remy Bressant, and Amy Ryan does a stellar job as the coke-head mother, Helene (she is nominated for the best supporting actress Oscar). Gone is filled with conflicted characters, realistic, ugly people who are less tha perfect, each carrying his or her inner demons. Morgan Freeman shows up in a minor role as Police Captain Jack Doyle, and steals one scene with a gut-wrenching speech that helps us to feel the pain of losing a child.
Then, mid-way through the movie, after a major set-piece in an abandoned quarry, the story seems to end. The search is called off. Tragedy is reality. And the decision Kenzie and Gennaro made to take on the case comes back to haunt them. Gennaro is now depressed because her predictions became fulfilled.
Where can the story go from here? It can only get even better still, with more twists and turns, all unexpected. Another child is kidnapped, and this opens act 2. This time, Kenzie accompanies a low-life friend to a low-life house and makes a dramatic discovery. Later, joined by the two detectives, he enters the house amidst lethal bullet-fire. Finding the criminal he was after, he makes a shocking discovery, and makes a chilling choice he later regrets. This choice sets the stage for the remainder of the film, because on the basis of this choice the whole of the first act is ultimately explained.
As soon as the choice is made, Kenzie realizes he has compromised his convictions. He is almost immediately racked with guilt and shame. In a terrific scene, Bressant tries to encourage Kenzie into believing he did right. But his morality is already compromised. "Murder's a sin," says Kenzie. "Depends on who you do it to," replies Bressant. "It doesn't work that way," retorts Kenzie. He is a three-dimensional character who has a faith (clearly spelled out in the opening monologue) that he wrestles with.
From here, Kenzie is plagued with his conscience. And this is what drives further towards the truth and further away from his love, Gennaro. With each new development, Kenzie is a man on a single-minded mission. As the movie approaches the climax, Kenzie figures out the mystery and faces a decision only he can make. If he does the right thing, he will lose what is dear to him. If he turns away, he can keep his love but lose his conscience . . . again. The movie began with Kenzie saying the line, "I always believed it was the things you don't choose that makes you who you are." He never chose the McCready job, it chose him. Now this has brought him face-to-face with the choice that will define him and make him who he is. The plot leads inexorably to this point, and what a decision he has to make.
Gone Baby Gone raises the theme of truth and compromise. What will we do for the truth? Are we really prepared to look for the truth? When it gets hard, personally, will we continue at all costs, or will we compromise our search and our values? It suggests that it is often through our shame for our sins that we are driven to make things right. Guilt is portrayed as a motivator for truth-seeking. Certainly, guilt can be a motivator, but biblically if we have confessed our sins, we are forgiven (1 Jn 1:9) and guilt is removed; we no longer stand under condemnation (Rom 8:1). Guilt, theologically, should be a motivator to drive us to God. Is it deepening or destroying our relationships?
Gone Baby Gone also raises the theme of family, specifically caring for our children. What will we do to keep our kids safe and protected? How well do we care for them? We may not be like the drug-addicted mother who leaves her kid at home while she goes snorting for hours, but what about when we simply leave our kids in front of the TV or the Wii for hours at a time? Or when we sit blogging or reading instead of interacting and relating with them? What is our priority?
In finding the truth, was it really what Kenzie wanted to find? And at the very end, in the final scene as he quietly makes one final choice, we wonder as viewers if he made the right choice? Afleck, the director, does not answer that question.
Copyright 2008, Martin Baggs