Moral Abstraction

(Heed the Spoiler’s Creed.)

Gone Baby Gone

gonebabygone.jpgRoughly halfway into Gone Baby Gone, Ben Affleck’s directorial debut, the movie is finished. The plot involving a kidnapped youth has been apparently, tragically resolved.

But the movie still has an hour left, a clockwatcher will tell you. And even if you’re not a person regularly calculating how the anticipated remaining X plot will unfold in the remaining Y minutes, you know that there’s plenty left to come. So what will it be? What will this movie be about, having dispensed with what appeared to be its primary story?

One of the great joys of cinema is a movie that genuinely surprises you — not with a twist ending but by being something different from what you expected or (even better) different from what you’ve previously experienced. (Surprise endings are so obligatory in thrillers nowadays that the only real surprise is their absence.)

So I was seriously jazzed about Gone Baby Gone at its midpoint, wondering where it would take me and excited that it seemed to be a nearly honest drama about missing children. It might actually substantively explore grief, responsibility, repercussion, community, and healing.

It didn’t take long for it to disappoint me, for it to choose the false path I should have expected. Police corruption, a setup to fool the protagonist, the dawning — full of unnecessary expository flashbacks — of what really happened, and a relatively happy finale that even according to the script is wildly incongruous with expected outcomes.

The damnedest thing is that — in the moment — it still works, in large part because Gone Baby Gone poses an intriguing moral question for which it refuses to provide a simple answer. And its conventional-thriller nature is less a crutch than a tool to ask that question.

But on reflection, the movie wilts. Affleck, who with Aaron Stockard adapted the novel by Dennis Lehane, works hard to ground Gone Baby Gone at the outset, but the issues it raises are so far removed from reality that they’re nearly abstract. Wouldn’t it be great if every child had a loving, whole, rural-living family instead of a single mother who plies illegal trades in the urban center to get high? Absolutely, so long as we don’t consider the sticky questions of who makes those decisions, how they’re made, the role of due process, and the mechanisms for the removal and redistribution of children. Gone Baby Gone treats the social quandary of bad parenting with such facileness that despite its self-seriousness, it’s pretty damned silly.

Casey Affleck plays Patrick Kenzie, a green private detective hired by the family of a missing girl; her drug-addled mother Helene (Amy Ryan) is a poster parent for the child-protective system. Patrick runs into resistance from the mother and the police (most notably, Morgan Freeman and Ed Harris), who assist him only grudgingly. The investigation leads to a drug dealer from whom Helene stole money, and a de facto ransom and hostage swap in a quarry turns into chaos. The drug dealer ends up dead, and the missing little girl is presumed to have drowned.

It was here that Gone Baby Gone teased me with the prospect that it had gigantic balls. Alas, it has Ben Affleck balls, which surely must be merely everyman-sized.

Patrick is sucked in to another missing-child case, and after its definitively unhappy resolution, Harris’ cop bends his ear for a drunken rant that sets in motion the dishearteningly de rigeur remainder of the plot. If you feel, as I did, that Freeman strangely lacked authority early in the movie, you’ll later recognize it as unsubtle telegraphing.

The primary problem with Gone Baby Gone is that it occupies two worlds. On the one hand, Affleck has a clear interest in portraying working-class Boston (and druggie-class Boston) realistically, which he signals with the movie’s unglamorous, candid opening shots. Ryan and Titus Welliver (as the abducted child’s uncle) are particularly strong in roles that could have easily come off as condescending, while the director’s brother plays the lead with a sleepy confidence. The film’s dialogue often sparkles in its profane way, particularly in a tense early scene in a rough bar. The coda, outside of the improbabilities of getting there, is appropriately ambiguous.

On the other hand, the movie is a fantasy, an artificial construct used to raise its heady question: Isn’t the abducted child better off with her new family than her biological mother? (That was a spoiler, by the way.)

Well, of course. And to be fair, the real question relates less to the end than the tension between the means and the end. Was it okay for this uncle and these cops to steal this girl from her mother to give her a better home? If you’ve ever wondered about the difference between moral absolutism and moral relativism, let Gone Baby Gone be your guide ... .

It’s a compelling issue, a scaling back of the classic would-you-murder-Hitler-before-the-Holocaust dilemma but no more practical. Your answer to this hypothetical might illuminate your own moral character, but it does nothing to address the very real problem of protecting children from neglectful and abusive parents.

And we all know that the children of such parents are adopted by bungling bureaucracies before they can be handed off to grandfatherly police-department executives, and it is in that (necessary) system that the real ethical and legal grayness lies. Child-protective systems are faulted for being too aggressive when they take kids away from their families for seemingly small transgressions, and they’re faulted for not acting quickly enough when a child is killed by an abusive father/boyfriend/mother/uncle.

A child-welfare-system procedural might not make for great cinematic drama, but we need something more nuanced and earthbound than this. Gone Baby Gone’s approach to such a serious issue exploits the tragedy of child abduction rather than doing justice to it.

A child-welfare-system procedural

Where’s Frederick Wiseman when we need him?

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