Part I: A look at a bleak film set in urban Boston, MA: Gone Baby Gone[1]

“It’s meant to hurt. It’s meant to shake everybody up”—Dennis Lehane

A clear understanding of cultural trends can be understood through the perspective of the films it produces. One of the major themes occurring often within our recent movies is the challenge of various aspects of motive and ethics.

A look at the bleak film, Gone Baby Gone, reveals the grittier heart of Boston. The setting could have been any dark corner of anyplace in urban America, because the theme is universal—what is easy is usually not what is right.

But the deeper question comes up with a presence that demands to be taken seriously: “How do we choose between what is good and what is morally right?” This question cannot be approached if the overarching question exists: “How can we know what is morally right?” Rather than presumptuously attempting to answer either question, I want to demonstrate why I believe the culture is asking them. My post will be in three parts.

“I always believed that it was the things you don’t chose that made you who you are . . . your city, your neighborhood, your family. I took pride in these things, like they were an accomplishment. Our starting gates . . . The bodies wrapped around our souls . . . The city’s wrapped around those.” (Opening lines of Gone Baby Gone.)

The central character, Patrick, played by Casey Affleck, continues his monologue into the opening scenes: “This was a hard place to grow up . . . When I was a kid I asked my priest how to be good and still protect myself . . . He told me what God said to His children; ‘Though I send you as sheep among wolves, you must be wise as serpents yet innocent as doves.’”

As young private investigators, Patrick and his girlfriend Angie are faced with the horror of two child abductions. With each of the abductions there was an overwhelming test of moral judgment for Patrick.

Half way into the plot, Patrick is devastated from what appears to have been the death of an abducted little girl named Amanda. Into the bar walks, Bubba, Patrick’s thug-like good guy, and the two of them decided that they were going to go after some sweet revenge. “This ain’t no strip-clubbin in Lynn, Patrick. I got something better for you, buddy.”

This first test seems to have been passed with an “A.” Patrick has his gun drawn on suspect and dope-addict kidnappers. He doesn’t take their lives, possibly because his was not in danger. He organized a raid instead. During that raid, he fails the test when he stumbles upon the “Diddler.” Corwin, an apparent kidnapper and molester, was upstairs claiming, “it was an accident. It was an accident.” (He was referring to the dead boy in the bathtub.) Patrick, with gun drawn, looks around the room and sees evidence that the boy was molested and abused before his murder. Patrick is enraged and shoots Corwin in the back of his head while he pleaded for mercy.

The viewer is supposed to be on the side of the protagonist, Patrick. While we’re on his side, he faces yet another difficult moral dilemma with the viewer on board. Making the case quite clearly, main character, Casey Affleck, who played the role of Patrick says this: “The movie, in the end, should have a very cerebral and emotional impact. People should be kind of torn emotionally and confused about the question they’re left with.”

According to Ben Affleck, the director of the film, “The right thing is really the difficult thing to do because it has consequences that are unpleasant often times. Otherwise, everyone would do it.”

Test number two comes after further development of the first case of child abduction. This was the bleak case of young Amanda who was taken from an unfit and neglectful mother. Amanda’s mother had been a drug mule, a drug user, stealing from a drug lord, etc, and she often did her craft either while her young daughter was with her, or while she was abandoning her altogether. When she is found, she appears not only unharmed, but quite content, havening been taken from her dead-beat mother for her own well-being.

It’s a small sub-plot, but we’re also suppose to feel sympathy for the mother who feels trapped in her life as though the choices were being made for her. “Do you even give a f*** about your kid?” She explains to the cop, “It’s really hard being a [single] motha. It’s hard raising a family, you know. All on my own.”

Leaving her in the arms of her kidnapper seems to likely be the best place for little Amanda. Patrick was hired to get Amanda back by her drug mule mother. At the climax of his commitment, he finds her safe and cared for in the arms of two loving parents who plotted her abduction to free her from the mother.

In the extended ending special features of Gone Baby Gone, the film closes with another monologue: “I was wrong about what makes us who we are. It’s the sides we choose, the mistakes we make, and who we leave behind.”

Denis Lehane, the film’s writer, explains, “We have not solved remotely the issue of how to raise and protect children in this society. We’re not even in the ballpark. So what became the major subtext of the book and the film is this sense of, “What are we doing?” And I don’t think [that] good art answers question, I think it just asks them.”

I want to take a stab at it. I don’t want to try to answer the questions being raised. I don’t want to point out that my answers come from a book of authoritative answers that society no longer acknowledges. I would come across as noise or static. What I want to take a stab at is why the question lingers. Why are we all shaken up, but yet confused? See part two of this post.

[1] a screenplay by Aaron Stockard, and a novel by Denis Lehane