There Will Be Choice: Why Gone Baby Gone Is the Best Film of 2007

[Editor’s Note: The House Next Door is currently reissuing a series of articles developed at 24LiesASecond, a now-defunct platform for provocative criticism with an underdog bite. Author Robert Cumbow is a member of the Parallax View collective and his essays are being published simultaneously on Parallax View. The essay below was first published on 11/05/2008, under the editorial guidance of James M. Moran (editor-in-chief) and Peet Gelderblom (founding editor).]

I always believed it was the things you don’t choose that make you who you are: your city, your neighborhood, your family. People here take pride in those things.
–Patrick Kenzie

Gosh, what a great year 2007 was for movies. You could wipe out the Academy’s five Best Picture nominees, replace them with five others, and still have an honorable rack of best-picture candidates. One of those second five could easily be Ben Affleck’s directorial debut Gone Baby Gone—my personal vote for best film of the year.

A well-crafted film, richly deserving of the honors it has received, No Country for Old Men nevertheless too often feels like a collection of highlights from Cormac McCarthy’s novel, sometimes about one guy, sometimes about another, never matching the novel’s more focused vision. There Will Be Blood is even more all over the map—gorgeous to look at, but without the discipline of knowing where it’s coming from, where it’s headed, and what, if anything, those two points have to do with each other. Michael Clayton bounces between rich characterization and caricature, moral complexity and empty-headed mantras about corporations. Atonement seems to be about one thing, but only for the purpose of revealing ultimately that it is about something else altogether—not romance or betrayal but the power of art to liberate, and the impossibility of such liberation. And it takes that war-epic detour in the middle, as if to say, “Hey, guys, this isn’t a chick flick! Honest!” Juno is primarily about language, but uneasily so, since its characters, who are all sharply defined and mostly well-rounded, nevertheless all speak with the same voice—the impossibly quick-witted and widely experienced voice of one clever writer. And the language of the film’s characters is an end, not a means, never satisfactorily bound to the film’s moral theme about decision-making.

Gone Baby Gone is also about decision-making; but unlike the Academy’s five nominees, it is a film that from the first to the last frame never forgets what it’s about, and remains unrelentingly faithful to its theme throughout. Director Ben Affleck shows an unerring eye and a concentration of intent that makes this film really special.

For one thing, it’s not just about decision-making, but also about the consequences of decisions. Every character in the film makes choices, and the film’s commitment to its South Boston framework continually asks—as smalltime private eye Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) does in his opening voice-over—whether those choices are what define us or not, and whether they are “real” choices at all, or are already determined by the nature of the chooser, dictated by the choices he didn’t make. In this sense, Gone Baby Gone is a more consciously focused (though less intellectually daring) meditation on freedom and determinism than the Coen Brothers’ palimpsest on Cormac McCarthy.

Both Afflecks impart an honest and uncompromising sense of place to the film, through repeated visual and verbal reminders of the neighborhood, its people and the inescapability of the city. In a sense, the film is the anti-Departed, quietly insisting on an authenticity of location that is far more crucial here than in Martin Scorsese’s New Yorker’s love-letter to Boston, where Beantown provides only a convenient situs of crime and police corruption appropriate toa transplanted Hong Kong action film. On the second point, it is also the anti-Juno, since each of its characters sounds authentically like himself, not like one or another aspect of the same writer’s wit.

Indeed, just as Patrick is alone with the decision he ultimately makes, he is also alone among the film’s major characters in the dialect he speaks. His fiancée, Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan), doesn’t sound at all like Patrick, and she ends up leaving him over the choice he makes. It’s not an Irish-vs.-Italian thing; she’s just not from the neighborhood.

Similarly, Detective Remy Bressant (Ed Harris), the Louisiana transplant who engineers the decision that Patrick makes the choice to undo, doesn’t sound like Patrick. But these things aren’t so simple, as Remy remarks to Patrick early in the film: “You might think you’re more from here than me. But I’ve been living here longer than you’ve been alive, so who’s right?”

Patrick’s right—at least in the sense that he makes a choice that someone outside the neighborhood would not make and probably would not understand.

Actually, Patrick makes two choices in the course of the film: to execute the child molester Corwin Earle (Matthew Maher), and to turn in Captain Jack Doyle (Morgan Freeman) and send Amanda home to her mother (Amy Ryan). Everyone supports his first choice, because all of the major characters are uncompromising in their hatred of child molesters. “You gotta take a side”; “you did what you had to do”; “you should be proud of yourself.” Even Patrick’s belief that he wouldn’t make the same choice again “doesn’t make it wrong” in Remy’s view. But in Patrick’s second choice, he is all alone. Bea—his client—isn’t there to thank him, and Helene’s persistence in her old behavior (despite her earlier promise that she would change, and in exact fulfillment of Angie’s prediction that she would be unable to) does nothing to assure Patrick of the rightness of his choice. Ben Affleck pointedly does not take sides; he knows his film is not about rightness of the decision but about the reasons Patrick makes it and has to live with it.

Affleck’s unwillingness to take a side informs his decisions about camera placement and frame composition. Whereas Jason Reitman recognizes the volatility of the abortion/adoption issue in Juno and he and scenarist Diablo Cody carefully deflect and nullify anticipated audience reactions from either side of the fence, Affleck concentrates on what his film is about and chooses a style designed to keep his audience from being distracted from the central idea. As just one example—well, two—in the scenes in which Amanda is taken from the Doyles and reunited with her mother, we are not allowed to glimpse the child’s face. In the police car, we see her, hands to her mouth, in an ambiguous gesture of what could be anticipation or apprehension; but Affleck is smart enough to recognize that any shot of Amanda’s face when she is taken from the arms of Francine Doyle (Kippy Goldfarb) or delivered into those of Helene McCready would introduce interpretation into the shot. It would raise the issue of the welfare of the child.

Child custody decisions in the United States are always made based on an analysis of the “best interests of the child.” Significantly, Gone Baby Gone is not interested in the best interests of Amanda, though most of its characters are, particularly Angie, Remy, and Doyle. Most of the film’s major characters are concerned with the interests of the child or of themselves or both. Angie frames the issue nicely when she wonders whether keeping inside information about police efforts to recover the child is “better for Amanda or better for us.” Remy and Doyle and Lionel make pronouncements such as “I did what I did for the sake of the child” and persuade themselves they are doing “one last good thing.” But Patrick, Helene, and Bea—all from the neighborhood—take for granted their sense that Amanda belongs where she comes from, not with a family that can give her a better life. “It wasn’t your life to give,” Patrick tells Doyle, and imagines a grown-up Amanda accusing him of having left her in the hands of a family that “wasn’t my family.”

Angie and Doyle both sense Patrick’s uncertainty and pounce on it: “This is the kind of thing that if you do, Patrick, you want to be sure,” she tells him; and moments later the retired police chief plays on Patrick’s fear that “this might be an irreparable mistake.” Patrick readily admits his uncertainty, and even in the film’s unforgettable closing shot seems unsure of whether he did the right thing. But this only reaffirms the point that the rightness of the decision is not the issue. In Patrick’s view his choice was a foregone conclusion. Amanda’s belonging to where she came from and the inevitability of Patrick’s choice to that effect are two sides of the same coin—not a coin that has traveled 28 years to get to this time and place, but a coin that was always irrevocably of the neighborhood.

So the dialectic of the film seems to be determinism vs. free will, and the dilemma is evident even in the rhetoric of Captain Doyle, the foremost of the film’s “free will” forces: “We don’t know why people do what they do. Everybody looks out his own window.” He says those words without knowing that with them, he damns himself. He is in the hands of Patrick, and Patrick already knows the only window he’s ever been able to look out of.

Are we free, or do we only believe we are free? Does it matter? Or is it only important how we behave with regard to things we can’t do anything about? This is not only a question that also arises in No Country for Old Men—it’s a question as old as Oedipus. The tale of Oedipus is, among other things, one of the oldest detective stories, perhaps the oldest. It’s about a resourceful guy who’s smarter than anyone else around him, better than everyone else at solving mysteries, figuring things out. But he’s never figured out the one great truth that there are forces he can’t beat, things he can’t outsmart. His tragedy is that all of his great detective work brings him to the recognition that the things he didn’t choose are the ones that made him who he is, and that he himself is the killer he is looking for.

There’s no greater story than that. Gone Baby Gone isn’t exactly the same story, though, since Patrick already knows, from the first words and the first frame of the film, that he is a product of the choices he didn’t make. Still, he’s as good a detective as old Oedipus. He talks like a plain blue-collar guy from the neighborhood, but he really is smarter than everyone else around him, gets out of tight spots through resourcefulness and a little bravado, and really does figure out the mystery through sheer, dogged detective work, when everyone else has given up. But he’s no better (or worse) than Oedipus when it comes to discovering himself and having to live with the consequences. The old cliché that when you save a person you become responsible for that person has never had such a literal meaning as that suggested by the ending of Gone Baby Gone.

The first time I saw Gone Baby Gone, I had the haunting sense of being reminded of something, not directly, but obliquely, in a ghostly sort of way. What especially resonated was the way the film’s central quarry scene leaves you disoriented, untethered, in a kind of free fall. She’s dead; where can the film go from here? “And like that, she was gone,” says Patrick in voiceover, reminding us of The Usual Suspects, and invoking the same kind of loss of narrative equilibrium: Have I been watching the right film at all?

Upon a second viewing, the ghost made itself known: Gone Baby Gone’s narrative structure is the narrative structure of Vertigo. A detective is hired and becomes obsessed with the person who is the center of his investigation. Then, at the center of the film, that person dies in a fall from a high place, and the shock leaves the detective unhinged and the audience looking around for something to grab hold of. The detective refuses to let go of the investigation, and it almost seems as if his tenacity wills the dead person back into existence. He solves the mystery, with someone else’s confession filling in the details; and then, in his pride at having figured it all out, he plays God, takes control of the destiny of the reborn victim, and ends by precipitating consequences he will find difficult to live with, and facing an agonizing awareness of himself.

There are differences of detail and nuance, of course. Scotty Ferguson was calculatedly hired and was a dupe in a conspiracy; Patrick’s hiring by Bea was accidental, and Lionel and the cops weren’t conspirators, they just made it up as they went along. But it’s the same story. One point of difference, though, is more than incidental: In Vertigo, Scotty, like Oedipus, thought he was acting freely throughout the “case,” only to find he was controlled by forces outside himself; in the second half of the film, he gets a second chance, and even when acting truly freely, ends up causing the same result, with greater and more tragic finality than before. Like Oedipus, he turns out to be the killer he was looking for. Patrick, by contrast, never believed he was free in the first place, and ends up not a lost soul like Scotty Ferguson but with the conviction that he could not have done otherwise. In that context, the consequences Patrick has to live with, bleak as they are, look a lot like redemption.

© 2008 Robert Cumbow