Spoiler Alert: Gone Baby Gone is a mystery and is, therefore, by nature, built on a surprise ending. I can’t discuss the themes without reveling it. So if the movie interests you I recommend seeing it before reading this post. However, I have to warn some of my readers that it has very dark moments, is built around a narrative arc of a child kidnapping and includes violence against children (I find I have less stomach for this sort of thing since Charis was born).
Patrick and Angie (Casey Affleck and Michelle Monaghan) are missing persons PI’s who are hired to assist the police in an investigation for a missing girl. The girl was apparently kidnapped while left alone (a common occurrence for her) as an act of revenge against her addict mother for a drug deal gone awry. The deeper the PI’s get into the case, though, the less sense it makes. People start dying and at one point, Patrick finds himself in a room with a child molester and a dead boy during a police shootout…and he puts a bullet in the man’s head. This string of events leads to this exchange with the officer in charge of the search (Remy played by Ed Harris):
Patrick: They say how old the boy was?
Patrick: Second grade.
Remy: Should be proud of yourself. Most guys would've stayed outside.
Patrick: I don't know.
Remy: What don't you know?
Patrick: My priest says shame is God telling you what you did was wrong.
Remy: F#*$ him.
Patrick: Murder's a sin.
Remy: Depends on who you do it to…Would you do it again?
Remy: Does that make you right?
Patrick: I don't know.
Remy: It doesn't make it wrong, though, does it?
Far from an off-narrative tangent (which it seemed at the time) this little discussion foreshadowed the film’s central theme. Gone Baby Gone asks the question: Is the moral value of a decision determined by its outcomes? As the movie unfolds Patrick figures out that Remy and the girl’s uncle were the actual ‘kidnappers’ staging her disappearance and death to get her out of her dysfunctional and dangerous family situation and into the care of a heartbroken, kindly, retired police Captain (played by Morgan Freedman and his incomparably sad eyes). In the movie’s closing minutes Patrick confronts the Captain and is faced with the decision of whether to turn him in or walk away. Freedman passionately made the Captain’s plea:
“You know why you haven't (called the police)? Because you think this might be an irreparable mistake. Because deep inside you, you know it doesn't matter what the rules say. When the lights go out, and you ask yourself "is she better off here or better off there", you know the answer. And you always will....You could do a right thing here. A good thing. Men live their whole lives without getting this chance. You walk away from it, you may not regret it when you get home. You may not regret it for a year, but when you get to where I am, I promise you, you will. I'll be dead, you'll be old. But she... she'll be dragging around a couple of tattered, damaged children of her own, and you'll be the one who has to tell them you're sorry.”
And suddenly, with minutes left in the film, it shifts from a dark PI thriller to a serious bit of philosophical art…because we know the answer too. We have no doubt that the girl would have a ‘better life’ (“with birthday parties and sandwiches with the crust cut off”) in the care of the Captain and his wife. The outcomes of walking away are irrefutably superior. Remy, the Captain, the girl’s uncle, even Patrick’s girlfriend all justify their behavior in the name of an ultimate good, the safety and nurture of an innocent child. And this makes them philosophical pragmatists…ethical consequntialists. It is hard not to side with them. But moral goods are not evaluated by outcomes.
Patrick makes the lonely decision that the right choice may not have the comfortable justification of superior outcomes. At great personal cost he reports the kidnapping and the girl is reunited with her mother. In the sad epilogue we see that while improved, this is still not an environment designed for her flourishing. And it is Patrick’s (seemingly nominal) religious conscience that sentences her to this life.
Gone Baby Gone tells the story of how philosophical consequntialism makes the desire to do ‘a good thing,’ something ‘men live their whole lives without getting this chance’ into a potentially self destructive impulse. It tells the story of the loneliness of accountability to a transcendent oughtness. I guess, in the end, it just tells a very compelling story. I owe the Affleck’s a second chance.