Review: “Gone Baby Gone” (2007)

Private investigator Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) finds people “who started in the cracks and fell through.” That’s not difficult to do because he identifies with such people; in fact, he might have been one of them, since he grew up in Dorchester, the same tough Boston neighborhood his clients come from. Chance, maybe a few bad mistakes — that’s all that separates Patrick from the people he gets paid to find. He’s no better or worse than them, and while he uses his position to make him a better detective he doesn’t fancy himself a savior for Boston’s downtrodden. Patrick has one interest: doing right by his clients. But the more he sees, the less able he is to feel out the boundaries of “right” and “wrong.”

Bless first-time director Ben Affleck for steering Patrick Kenzie into this world of moral grayness and not one of polarizing moral absolutes. The last thing a sharp, haunting film like “Gone Baby Gone” — based on Dennis Lehane’s fourth book in the Kenzie-Gennaro series — needs is a self-righteous hero with a gun in one hand and a soap box in the other. In the underbelly of Boston, where people know more than they want about each other and won’t tell any of it to the cops, only a quick thinker like Patrick will work. Casey Affleck plays him as low-key, occasionally glib, but he’s not heartless, just a man with a moral code that’s not fully formed yet. That code gets tested by the case he and his parter Angie (Michelle Monaghan) take on involving four-year-old Amanda McCready (Madeline O’Brien), who has vanished from her mother Helene’s (Amy Ryan, stellar beyond words) apartment. All signs point to a kidnapping, since Helene’s a drug mule for local kingpin Cheese (Edi Gathegi) with a lot of enemies. Amanda’s aunt and uncle (Amy Madigan, Titus Welliver) believe Patrick can augment the police investigation because he knows Boston’s bottom rungs. Their relationship with Helene, who does things like take her daughter along on drug runs, is rocky.

The case takes Patrick and Angie further into the city’s underbelly than they expected. As their search deepens and they become emotionally involved, Ben Affleck keeps the action tight, the twists rapid and the characters intricate. His shots, too, of Dorchester’s seedy bars, empty warehouses and addicts provide a fitting backdrop and a sense of grime and forboding that’s hard to shake. The investigators butt heads with Boston PD Capt. Jack Doyle (Morgan Freeman, unassuming and devastating as always) and detectives Remy Bressant (Ed Harris) and Nick Poole (John Ashton) and get mixed up with the local criminal element, including Helene. Everyone, really, has ulterior motives — some honorable, some selfish — that cloud the water. What’s compelling about “Gone Baby Gone” is the way the film gets at these motives very carefully. Even though in movies like this one, with its neo-noir leanings, we’ve come expect the unexpected, the surprises are still genuine, the consequences unforseen. Most unwilling to accept the not knowing is Patrick, whom Casey Affleck plays with an understated but fiery determination.

Probing the “actions have unpredictable consequences” angle is one thing Ben Affleck does well in his first feature film. “Gone Baby Gone” is a remarkably assured, even-handed look at both sides of some heavy issues with no sides or stances are taken. Amanda, if found, surely seems like she’d thrive with her aunt and uncle as her guardians. But Helene is her biological mother, and though she’s an addict there’s always the possibility she could clean up, become a better mother. Although Angie and Bea (Madigan) and Remy see nothing in Helene but wasted oxygen, Patrick can’t deny that the woman, underneath all the beer and drugs and foul language, honestly cares about her child, knows she made some colossal mistakes and wants another chance. Ryan, so deserving of her Oscar nomination, gives so much to Helene, finds damage and bitterness and also vulnerability, contrition. What Patrick sees in her prompts him to venture down Frost’s “road less traveled by.” His choice makes all the difference, and “Gone Baby Gone” lets us see how sometimes the aftermath of a perceived right choice can be very, very damning.

Grade: A

13 Responses

  1. Great film and I was actually pretty surprised. I was coming into the film thinking it was going to be a lame attempt for Ben Affleck to get into the director game. However, after watching it I have to say that I was pretty impressed.

  2. I remember when it came out on DVD & I decided not to buy it. It is so creepy & disturbing (in a good way) that I just couldn’t see myself watching it over again. That scene when they bust into the house…ugh. Brutal to watch!

    • That kind of scene just makes you want to bathe in Clorox. And an open flame.

      • You know Mer, my attorneys are looking into your comment as a case for plagiarism against one of my previous (read: brilliant) comments posted on your site. Although you changed phrasing just enough that the lawyers I hired are having a tough time trying to make any claims stick:)

        Good movie in a not so feel good way. I seem to like any movie with an (spoiler free statement) unexpected bad guy.

        Plus did anyone else want the mother to get hit with a runaway train? Or am I alone in that wanting to see that?

  3. Absolutely outstanding and a heck of an underrated movie. Ben Affleck shows he is a much better director than he is an actor. I honestly did not see the final twist coming until it hit me in the face.

    I agree with CC about the house scene. So well made it keeps you on the edge of your seat.

  4. Is it just me, or did anyone think of Clint Eastwood when watching this? Not just because they cast Morgan Freeman and Ed Harris in prominent roles, but just because it’s that kind of American wasteland sort of film, looking at communities in the less-than-shiny parts of big cities, like Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby.

    I know we’re a long way off calling Affleck the next Eastwood (I’m happy with the one we have), but I just couldn’t get that idea out of my head while watching the film.

    I agree with you, the film is astounding by the way – one of the best of the decade.

    • It’s hard not to think of Eastwood, especially since “Mystic River” came first. This definitely has all the darkness of one of his films.

      Still amazes me that Amy Ryan was the only part of “Gone Baby Gone” that got an Oscar nomination. Cryin’ shame right there.

  5. Gone Baby Gone was a rich film and greatly benefited from the stellar supporting cast. I thought for sure Harris or Freeman would’ve gotten an Oscar nod, but alas none.

    • Another case of the Academy proving its idiocy … which it has a long and proud history of doing.

  6. I was thinking about the ending of it for weeks afterwards, and still do! stays with you long after youve watched it. and it has Marvin Dorfler from Midnight Run in it, so it must be good

  7. This is an outstanding film and your review is spot-on, M! It definitely restores my respect for Ben Affleck and I agree with Castor, he definitely he’s a better director than an actor (though he’s proven to be quite adept at comedy). I love Casey’s nuanced performance as he struggled to do what’s right (according to his moral values). The ending truly stayed with me a while and my hubby & I kept thinking about what really is the ‘right’ thing to do here. Ben truly did a great thing in that he wasn’t preachy about the matter, he’s simply presenting something so divisive in such a compelling manner. If there’s an Oscar for Best Ensemble Cast, this one should get nominated for sure!

  8. [...] camera on the streets of Boston, his hometown, then, seems like a logical step. He proved in “Gone Baby Gone” that it was a brilliant one, too. While “The Town,” with its amazingly filmed car [...]

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