Primal Fears: Revisiting “Gone Baby Gone”

By Evan McGarveyOctober 13, 2023

Primal Fears: Revisiting “Gone Baby Gone”
THE PRIVATE DETECTIVES are young and raw, like new parents. As Casey Affleck’s Patrick Kenzie welcomes his potential clients into the dim, sweaty apartment that doubles as his office and rubs the sleep from his eyes, you can feel the classic conceit of tragedy kick in: you can save yourself if you stop now. This desperate couple who heard you can “find people” and have come to ask you to find their abducted niece Amanda? Say no. Forget them. Remain focused on, as Patrick describes the typical missing persons case undertaken by him and his partner, people who have “stopped payments on their Jet Ski and […] went to New Hampshire.”

Of course Patrick doesn’t. He agrees to go to the little girl’s home. Of course we’re in South Boston: all double- and triple-deckers. TV crews garrison the street outside the missing girl’s home. They press cameras and microphones into any Marlboro-Red-and-Narragansett–fed local who can croak about how “we got fliers up, posters up, […] so everybody’s well aware.”

Inside the home from which the little girl was taken sits her mother: Helene McCready (Amy Ryan), cross-faded before noon, venial, crass, narcissistic, comprehensively unfit. The Boston-Irish Hera. There are less polite names one might call her.

The city has already begun to ripple with that kind of civic dread that blurs empathy with voyeurism with bloodlust. Patrick’s partner Angie (Michelle Monaghan) wants them to refuse the case because she doesn’t “want to find their little kid in a dumpster.” But we are going. We are going into the kind of darkness that isn’t phantasmagoric, but is instead the kind of quotidian pain that most of us cannot bear to look at. The cameras and the neighbors in a dance of performed, anticipatory grief: Isn’t this every day? Isn’t this everywhere?

Gone Baby Gone (2007), Ben Affleck’s directorial debut, is the rare genre movie that dares to look not at tragedy but through it, to the ragged impulses and delusions that animate everyone around it. The film, adapted from the 1998 Dennis Lehane novel, is the dark star among 2007’s phalanx of superb, genre-inflected dramas (Michael Clayton, Eastern Promises, No Country for Old Men). It meets the ethical obligations of its central premise because it does not hinge entirely on the crime itself. In spirit and temperament, it is closer to The Sweet Hereafter (1997) than to 8mm (1999). Amanda and her abduction become a Wailing Wall on which the characters and the movie’s broader idea of community scratch their dreams and their dread.

Could there be a premise more effective—more manipulative—than the child in peril? It can produce excellence: the implicating power of Fritz Lang’s M (1931), the unflinching gaze of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (1970), Clytemnestra’s empire-shaking rage, the corn liquor–plus–Book of Revelations dread of Cormac McCarthy’s Outer Dark (1968).

And it can yield the kind of entertainment that runs from lazy to odious: a thousand queasy thriller plots and the gross third acts of otherwise acceptable action movies; the narrative cowardice of the last 10 minutes of The Dark Knight (2008); plot points on dross like Criminal Minds (2005– ) and The Walking Dead (2010–22); and, at the bottom, the kind of stories that blend the “upon this voyeurism I will build my church” abyss of Nancy Grace and the worst of paranoid, reactionary politics.

This summer saw the thriller Sound of Freedom—inspired by a Q-curious anti-trafficking organization with a dubious record—treat contemporary child slavery like Hank Williams Jr. treated the Monday Night Football theme song. The film claims to be based on the real life experiences of a former Department of Homeland Security agent and demands that a hyperbolic, Death Wish–esque fantasy that ends with a raid on a FARC cocaine factory in Colombia be taken as earnestly as muckraking journalism.

Actual journalists have disagreed. Tim Ballard, the man on whom the movie is based, has been accused of fabricating his credentials: The Atlantic found that Ballard has not released his official employment record with the CIA and DHS. His “rescue organization” has been accused of exaggerating their work, traumatizing the children they claim to save by videotaping their “freedom raids” and frequently providing zero rehabilitative care.

It didn’t affect the film’s success. Sound of Freedom made a ton of money, generated word-of-mouth energy, and spun up conspiracies among its fans about how Hollywood was trying to squelch the film—air-conditioning failures in major movie chains figure heavy in that fever dream.

Sound of Freedom has been a hitching post for the kinds of Americans whose politics focuses exclusively on children in peril because for them the idea of children in danger is personally exciting. It becomes a fantasy in which to enmesh oneself: you, too, can help save the children! This kind of moral panic has always existed on the fringe, but the era’s combination of internet voyeurism; the mainlining of Q-curious (Jeffrey Epstein’s death) and full-Q (Pizzagate) conspiracies; and roiling anti-expert, anti-state, end-the-public-sphere sentiments (evil doctors and sinister teachers and blind bureaucrats) have met the elemental dread of the child-in-peril.

This is the dark escapism some choose, the child-in-sexualized-peril an all-encompassing filter on everything around them. Sound of Freedom fans receive a blinding thrill from the idea of children in pain. Any righteous vengeance is secondary. And chances are these audiences are not in favor of better social services or more accessible healthcare or, yes, sex education or the recognition that the biggest threats to their child typically are family or friends.

Sixteen years later, Gone Baby Gone’s power endures precisely because its premise has swallowed American life. One set of Americans has the legitimate fear that children will be murdered in public at any moment because we sell and celebrate semiautomatic rifles and military-grade magazines from sea to shining sea. And another set of Americans—the Sound of Freedom crowd—subsists off of phantasmagoric, socially cancerous fantasies of pedophile librarians and evil doctors eager to corrupt their children. One is reality and one is fantasy. But that doesn’t matter to the people who feel those feelings. Grim as it is to say, the child-in-peril is the world tree of contemporary American culture war sentiment. All paths eventually arrive there.

As a movie committed to the limits of agency (what cops can’t do, what family cannot fix, how quickly TV screens and communities leap from old tragedy to new), Gone Baby Gone provides a set of human responses to this crime of crimes. Aside from two harrowing set pieces, the bulk of the running time is given over to conversations in anticipation of or in the aftermath of encounters with the Boston underworld: Patrick and Angie and veteran cops (Ed Harris and John Ashton) anxious before confronting a drug lord who might know where Amanda is, Amanda’s uncle Lionel (Titus Welliver, in a career performance) remembering the time Helene left her daughter alone in a car at the beach. Rage and grief swim across his face in his retelling.

The novelist behind Gone Baby Gone, Dennis Lehane, writes crime narratives well acquainted with the darkest corners of the night. Those unfamiliar with his books may know him as part of the troika of ethnic-white crime novelists who worked on The Wire (2002–08): Richard Price (literary, New York, Jewish), George Pelecanos (journalistic, DC, Greek), and Lehane (cinematic, Boston, Irish).

The series of Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro novels, of which Gone Baby Gone is the fourth, makes Patrick and Angie’s interest in this case and others explicit: they are both survivors of abuse. The movie omits this. Lehane’s Boston is filled with those who hurt children: firefighters who harm their kids (Patrick’s dad), husbands who beat their wives (Angie’s husband), politicians with a sexual appetite for boys (1994’s A Drink Before the War), a serial killer activated by the loss of their own young child (1996’s Darkness, Take My Hand).

These novels—along with Lehane’s stand-alone masterpiece, Mystic River (2001)—were published in the late 1990s and early ’00s when Boston transformed from a shabby patrician backwater that bubbled with racialized violence to a gleaming biotech hub with a housing shortage matched only by the Bay Area’s. The Kenzie and Gennaro novels slid from naturalism to historical fiction in a decade. They summon the Boston of no-outsiders, of no Blacks allowed, of Dorchester and of Southie, of Cardinal Law. Lehane’s latest novel, this spring’s Small Mercies, is another missing-child narrative, this time juxtaposed against the Boston school busing crisis of the 1970s. It is excellent and it is entirely Lehane. At their best, Lehane’s novels read like Thomas Hardy two Jamesons deep wearing a Bobby Orr jersey. That’s a high compliment.

Which is why Lehane’s work was such a strong fit for Affleck’s first film. Where, for example, Matt Damon so naturally carries the smarm of 18th-century prep schools and Head of the Charles Regatta, Ben Affleck embodies the chatty, haunted, flinty memory of ungentrified Boston.

Affleck’s directorial craft here is typical of a first effort: many sweeping overhead shots of Suffolk County; Patrick saying “I got it” at the epiphany in the third act; big insert shots of local color, like a menu at a Caribbean restaurant, or gin blossoms on an old man’s face. If Affleck’s effects feel occasionally inelegant, this, in a way, becomes a strength. The movie becomes more humane, more desperate.

The three directors who have adapted Lehane’s novels—Martin Scorsese (2010’s Shutter Island), Clint Eastwood (2003’s Mystic River), and Affleck (Gone Baby Gone) all offer different values and aesthetics. But where Mystic River and Shutter Island were helmed by master filmmakers who left the source material relatively untouched and anchored their films in the mysteries of the past and mysteries of the self, Affleck’s Gone Baby Gone has its narrative eyes on the future, and what we mean when we say community.

It makes sense, then, that another one of Gone Baby Gone’s grace notes is its ensemble. Michael K. Williams arrives at the film’s three-quarters mark and delivers a monologue of exposition and context with an admixture of menace, charm, and world-weariness. As the seemingly benevolent police commissioner, Morgan Freeman subverts his reputation for playing calm sages. Ed Harris simmers then boils as a career cop beaten down by a lifetime spent solving the mysteries of children hurt or killed. Casey Affleck fits as a twitchy, greyhound-thin novice in a tracksuit with a habit of shit-talking his way into trouble. And what more can be said about Amy Ryan’s Oscar-nominated performance as Helene McCready? She sets her mouth in a pucker when she’s lobbing homophobic taunts at Patrick. She rages at her sister and mocks her infertility. And when she understands that her daughter has been taken, she claws at Patrick and Harris’s Detective Sergeant Bressant, gasping, almost mewing, as she asks if her child has been fed by whoever took her.

All these characters and their well-acted melodrama crash nobly against the film’s twist: Amanda is physically safe. She was stolen from Helene’s home by her uncle Lionel, Bressant, and his partner, with the approval of Morgan Freeman’s police commissioner. These men knew about the child’s precarious situation and stole her. They delivered her to Freeman, and to his lovely family and lovely home in the country. A new life.

In the film, this is the first time that these rogue cops have done a thing like this. In the novel, it has become their pattern, their extrajudicial savior routine: taking children from parents who are pimps or murderers or drug dealers—or simply irredeemably neglectful. They steal them and deliver them to “good” families, whatever that means. They believe they are saving the children. Their actions recall a moral inversion of the Dirty War in Argentina, where the infant or toddler of a journalist or trade unionist would be abducted and raised by an elite, right-wing family. Then, a decade later, if the birth parents had not been killed by the junta, that journalist or trade unionist would see their child in a plaza. And their child would not remember them. Love past and love future and the most intimate memories deleted as a form of war.

I think about the professions where encountering the pain of children is routine. The ER doctors who notice a child’s lingering arm fracture that never healed right; the teachers who watch a child decay over a year, from clean and fed to unkempt and skittish, and one day see their father drop them off, obviously drunk at 8:00 a.m. I’m a teacher and a parent of two young children, and I can say that Gone Baby Gone haunts me still. I watch my students and wonder if my radar for their suffering is too delicate, if I’m too ready to sit with our school counselor and tell them what I see, what I suspect. My mother is a psychologist in Providence whose associate consulted during the New England Catholic Church abuse trials. The physician at my boarding school, who ran his hands slowly across my 15-year-old-body as he checked me for appendicitis, would be convicted years later for possessing child pornography. My friends would retell stories of him arriving at their dorm after midnight, offering rides to Denny’s. I remember being a graduate student at Penn State, a big school tucked away in a small town in the Alleghenies. It was in the morning, and I was drinking coffee in the Wegmans, watching a series of steely Pennsylvania Appalachian men weep by the grocery store’s entrance. It hit me when I saw the newspaper that day: Jerry Sandusky in cuffs. Cue the horrors of another American institution failing children. But for whom did the men cry—for the abused children, or for the school and football team to which many in the area tethered their identity?

The final tragedy in Gone Baby Gone is that Patrick and Angie find little Amanda hidden in the leafy suburb, and Patrick makes an ethically correct decision that might be morally wrong: he returns Amanda to Helene. He has both done the right thing and doomed this little girl to her awful mother. The entire police force treats Patrick as persona non grata. His career is cut off just as the film reveals how talented a detective he could be. Angie leaves him. And Amanda is with her mother, with all that that entails. The film’s last line of dialogue is a hammer blow, and its final beat belongs in the same class as the ending of a ’70s totem like Night Moves (1975).

The child-in-peril narrative haunts us because when faced with it, we want a superhuman control not different from the feeling that Uncle Lionel and the corrupt police want when they steal Amanda away. The best of these stories—whether M or Gone Baby Gone or the Oresteia—challenge that notion of agency. They ask audiences to accept our shared inability to master the inhumane.

In his collection The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches, the 17th-century Japanese poet Bashō witnesses a small child abandoned by a riverbank. He wonders why the child was abandoned, gives the child some food, and then continues on. I think that for Affleck, as for Bashō, this tragedy at the dark center of the human experience is both worthy of witnessing and too much to live with for very long. Gone Baby Gone prods the viewer about home, and family, and our own moral imperatives. And then it ends. And we are left alone maybe feeling something like Bashō did when he wrote a poem about his encounter with the child:

The ancient poet
Who pitied monkeys for their cries,
What would he say, if he saw
This child crying in the autumn wind?


Evan McGarvey’s work has appeared in TheNew Republic, VICE Sports, and Pitchfork. He is the co-author of 2pac vs. Biggie: An Illustrated History of Rap’s Greatest Battle (Voyageur, 2013). He lives in Texas.

LARB Contributor

Evan McGarvey’s work has appeared in The New Republic, VICE Sports, and Pitchfork. He is the co-author of 2pac vs. Biggie: An Illustrated History of Rap’s Greatest Battle (Voyageur, 2013). He lives in Texas.


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