- Dir: Ben Affleck, 2007
Gone Baby Gone, released in 2007, was Ben Affleck’s directorial debut. It’s a crime/noir film about a missing child.
I enjoyed the film a lot. It gets to the heart of one of the central tropes in a lot of classic noir films - the moral ‘purity’ of the P.I. The ending is notable (I won’t spoil it here). Even though the film has plenty of satisfying plot ‘reveals’, in accordance with its genre as a crime movie, it gets them out of the way before the ending proper - a Sophie’s Choice moment for the main character. A core question - “What does it mean to save a child?”
In this way, it becomes more of a ‘meta’ crime film, or a crime ‘parable’, focusing on general questions of morality and integrity. The classic moral system it explores is the Kantian one. Kantian, or deontological (‘deon’ coming from the Greek for ‘duty’), morality rests on the famous imperative:
Act only according to that maxim by which you can also will that it would become a universal law.
In the movie, Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck), embodies this principle. The characters around him, especially the members of the police, all embody its traditional inverse, found in utilitarian/consequentialist systems. They act according to the rule: “The ends justify the means”. This is a pretty common dichotomy in films dealing with crime and police (more about this below).
At the end of the movie, we see the contrast laid bare, in the form of two opposing speeches given about the right course of action. Again, I don’t want to spoil the ending too much, but this form of presentation, almost resembling a Socratic dialogue, makes the movie quite unique and self-aware. It reminded me a little of the films of someone like Osmane Sembene. Those films, about various moral questions in Senagalese society (e.g., Moolaade - the practice of female genital mutilation, Xala - capitalism and post-colonial politics), were intended to be highly ‘public’ - screened for a local community, for example, and then followed by a discussion about the moral/political themes. The films serve as a way of aesthetically presenting difficult, ambiguous questions for the community, questions which are often better explored in a narrative mode than, say, a political or policy-driven speech for the public. In general, this is a common trope of what theorists once called “Third Cinema” (Hollywood/entertainment cinema is “first cinema”, European/arthouse is “second”). This movement recognised the political core of all cinema, and harnessed this power to spark public discussion and action.
After the movie, we have to ask ourselves who we would ‘side’ with, based on a crude, but true, moral opposition. Of course, most of us will side with Patrick Kenzie, because we are aligned with him as the main character of the film. But, we are forced to recognise the difficulty of this position - the type of courage it takes to represent it - as well as our complicity with the inverse position - a corrupt policing system.
Another standout moment in the film is the bizarre plot tangent when Patrick discovers the lair of a paedophile. This whole sequence surreal and nightmarish - he is drinking at a bar, supposedly ‘after’ the initial plot mystery is resolved, and his associate tells him to go for a ride with him. From there, things get weirder and incredibly horrifying. Even though this sequence has nothing to do with the plot, it’s still central to the film. It reminded me of the sequence from True Detective - you know the one - in episode three. It’s hyper-real and hyper-violent. We follow the action through the eyes of Patrick, almost like in a videogame. In both True Detective and Gone Baby Gone, the main character becomes almost ‘superhuman’ in these sequences, running into the line of fire and navigating it like a trained professional.
Visually/cinematically both sequences are stunning, but I’m still trying to figure out what their deeper purpose is. I think that they basically serve as a ‘simulation’ for the viewer; a way to more ‘directly’ experience the horrors of the underworld that Patrick and Rust have sacrificed so much to explore and fight against. It is only in film/TV that you can get that kind of aesthetic ‘directness’, the feeling that you are strapped to a roller coaster and you are forced to experience something. I think the feelings of disgust and terror are important in both these, highly-moralistic, stories.
Finally, the main flaw with the film, aside from the point of Patrick’s girlfriend in the second half, doesn’t really come from the film itself, but from its genre. The setup is too familiar, especially today - a mostly-good-intentioned-but-corrupt police force exists, and an ‘outsider’ (usually a P.I., but can also be a ‘rookie’ for example, like in Training Day, or a superhero, etc.) enters the scene and makes sure that ‘justice’ is restored. Many Hollywood films like to cling to this myth that the lone ‘individual’ with moral integrity will come along and save the day. The problem with this is that it is too ‘cathartic’; it absolves the film-goer of the need for collective responsibility and collective action.
Instead, we need to see more films that envision collective, systemic change, especially as it relates to policing. Of course, it’s not Hollywood’s job to fix political problems, but I think there is a case to be made that these kinds of narratives, at the very least, can lull audience members into a false sense of security. Yes, I’m sure there are plenty of ‘good apples’ trying their best every day to fix justice systems, education systems, political systems, etc., but they are not winning. Perhaps because they remain hopelessly alone, like Patrick at the film’s end. All they have to comfort themselves is their conscience. At least that’s more than most of us have.