Running Time: 114 mins
Rated: Rated MA 15+ (strong violence, themes and coarse language)
The Boston neighbourhood of Dorchester is a gritty, working-class area lined with the wreckage of broken families and dreams. Here 4 year-old Amanda McCready goes missing without a trace. The police fail to turn up even the narrowest lead, so Amanda's desperate Aunt and Uncle plead with local private investigators Patrick Kenzie (Affleck) and Angie Genarro (Monaghan) to take the case.
Because they have never done a child abduction case before they are hesitant, but they know the neighbourhood well, and they also know the truth about Amanda's drug-addicted mother Helene (Ryan). As they dig into her story, they find themselves on a trail that winds into the dark heart of Dorchester and through a chain of drug-dealers, ex-cons and child abusers, but brings them no closer to Amanda. In the glare of the media spotlight, they join forces with a relentless detective Remy Bressant (Harris) and police captain Jack Doyle (Freeman). And just as it appears that the emotionally wrenching case is about to be cracked, in the flash of gunfire, the sad truth of Amanda's fate is revealed.
As everyone attempts to move forward, a haunted Patrick Kenzie cannot walk away. As he backtracks through the clues, he finds himself lured into an ever-intensifying web of lies and inexplicable violence. And he comes to see the shocking secret that hid the truth. It is then that he faces the greatest moral dilemma of his life.
Novelist Dennis Lehane wrote the book Mystic River and then wrote Gone Baby Gone. Both are set in working class Boston. Both are about traumatic childhoods and the abuse therein, and both are about people being haunted by the past. Ben Affleck, along with Matt Damon, won an Oscar for his "Good Will Hunting' screenplay. Here he team up with Aaron Stockard to adapt Lehane's novel for the screen. Affleck also directs.
Gone Baby Gone is not an easy cinematic experience. If you took the Lord's name out of the screenplay it would be twenty minutes shorter, but, besides that, there are also shocks, violent language and a disturbing atmosphere that creates the dark world it describes.
While many of us may not want to enter this domain, it is sobering to find out that 2,000 children go missing in the USA every day. I am not sure what the figures are for Australia, but many parents know the anxiety behind this statistic.
On one level this film is a very ambitious and generally successful debut for Ben Affleck as a director. He draws out fine performances from this top-rate cast, but there are problems too. The broad Bostonian dialogue is so quickly delivered that it is sometimes unintelligible. We need subtitles. The four act structure makes for a convoluted plot and at times this seems unnecessarily complex. But worst of all Casey Affleck may be a fine actor, and he does some good work here too, but he is the wrong age for the part. His 32 year old baby face is a distraction because it is hard to believe him in this role. It is always dicey for a director to hire his family.
Given the confusing world it portrays, it is no surprise that the morality of Gone Baby Gone is confused as well. As smart as some of these characters are, and as often as they invoke God and the saints, and quote the New Testament and the moral teachings of priests, none of them seem to know much about objective and subjective mortal sin and the conditions for moral culpability. They need a good confessor to help them out. For while evil acts remain evil, my culpability for an evil act can only be judged by the seriousness of the act, my freedom to choose, my knowledge of the action and its consequences and the formation (or lack of it) of my conscience.
Gone Baby Gone in no way answers the moral questions it raises, but it does give us pause for deep reflection on moral choices and social policy that are affecting children's safety right here and now.
Disney Out April 17
Fr Richard Leonard SJ is the director of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.