“I always believed it was the things you can’t choose that make you who you are.” Pronounced by young Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck), this assessment is as much as about Boston as about the particular unchosen events he endures in Gone Baby Gone. A private detective whose experience runs to following spouses around, Patrick is essentially remade when he takes a missing child case. “When your job is to find people who are missing,” he says as the camera shows views of the Dorchester district, all working class and Red-Soxed, “it helps to know where to start. This city can be hard.”
The case comes to Patrick via four-year-old Amanda’s (Madeline O’Brien) Uncle Lionel (Titus Welliver) and Aunt Bea (Amy Madigan), both visibly distraught over what they suggest strongly is Amanda’s mother’s ineptitude and unfitness. Though Patrick and his partner Angie (Michelle Monaghan) have no experience with kidnappings or murders, they do know the neighborhood (“where to start”) and they’re soft touches for upset relatives, and so they agree to investigate.
This puts them into more or less direct confrontation with the cops, especially Captain Jack Doyle (Morgan Freeman), who years ago lost his own daughter to kidnappers and now heads the Crimes Against Children Unit, dedicated to remembering and looking for missing children. Though Doyle agrees they should share information and work towards the best possible end of the case, he’s also plainly suspicious of the interlopers’ greenness and resents especially that they represent (however inadvertently) the increasing mediation of such cases. The worst offenders in this aspect are not detectives, of course, but the press, repeatedly shown swarming in the backgrounds of shots, camped outside the home of supposedly anxious mom Helene (Amy Ryan).
In fact, her lack of appropriate affect makes Helene a suspect right off. Not only is she not properly upset by Amanda’s disappearance, but she’s also hateful to Bea and a drug addict (apparently crack, mostly). The fact that she’s so unsympathetic — for the journalists looking for story hooks within the film as well as for the film itself — makes Helene more compelling and difficult than the usually mediated-sainted mother of a missing child. The fact that Patrick promises her he will bring her child home, even hugs her when she cries, grants him a moral high ground not available to those tougher cops and vulture-like reporters who condemn her out of hand. Yes she left the child alone while she went looking for crack and a bad boyfriend at a bar, but she’s a mom.
For Patrick, the biological point is primary. And in this, he forms a certain solid, of impractical center, for Ben Affleck’s directorial debut. Based on a novel by Dennis Lehane, the film is sometimes gutsy and mostly good-looking, but it’s also fond of clichés and silly plot twists. Presenting a proudly biased view of Boston’s nobly struggling working class, its missing-girl starting point recalls Lehane’s Mystic River. Part noir, part moralizing, and part urban-malaisey, the movie offers an assembly of seedy sorts who make Patrick’s quest look increasingly hopeless but also ineffably gallant.
To underline that he is of the community he navigates, the film includes a couple of crucial interview scenes with very foul sorts. Tattooed and swaggering and vested, these guys are both opposed to the cops and just like them. Patrick keeps up in front of the bullies — talking trash like a pro and standing up for his girlfriend like a man, then like Sam Spade, reveals his understanding of the nature of his tough-guy show. Like his adversaries, he’s pretending.
Patrick puts on this show more or less effectively with the low-rent nut-jobs, cretins, and thugs he interviews (it helps that he has a gun to flash). The film provides him with an excessively recognizable villain, the drug dealer Cheese (Edi Gathegi). Because he’s so broadly stereotypical, Cheese is either the film’s flimsiest device or its most transparent effort to distract you. The fact that he makes both Patrick and Angie show their chests to prove they’re not wired during a crucial meeting makes Patrick very anxious about manly disrespect and whatnot. But such blatant posturing with regard to girls as property characterizes most every male in the film. Intriguingly, it’s not entirely clear whether Patrick’s absolute moral code allows him to see his own participation in that old-school, not so charming behavior.
Either way, the film’s primary tensions are between men, as Angie soon discovers. Patrick locks horns with an especially dug-in detective, Remy Bressant (Ed Harris). Their back-and-forthing over who’s most right or most intuitive or most masculine provides brief cover for the film’s other major interest, an unoriginal, if pressing and unanswerable, ethical dilemma concerning bad mothers. Patrick’s dedication to the case leaves him isolated, pronouncing his version of the right thing repeatedly, as if he’s unsure himself.
It’s this uncertainty that saves Gone Baby Gone from some frankly preposterous plotting and some overstated visuals (see especially: the repeated mystery scene at the “cliff”). It complicates Patrick’s conventional guy stuff, underlining his confusion and vulnerability (and Affleck is very good hinting at a conscience beyond articulation; see also: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Gerry, and Lonesome Jim). Angie is too soon relegated to sidekick, a means to illustrate Patrick’s thoughtfulness. But he remains a puzzle, simultaneously produced by his “hard” city, rejected by it, and trying to decipher it.