Gone Baby Gone opened in the US last year but the release here was postponed owing to sensitivities surrounding the Madeline McCann case, to which the film bears a superficial resemblance. The director’s younger brother Casey, mesmerising in The Assassination of Jesse James, plays Patrick Kenzie, a low-rent Boston private detective who, together with his girlfriend and business partner Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan), specialise in exposing adulterers and finding bad debtors. They are dragged into the investigation surrounding the abduction of a four year old girl, Amanda McCready (Madeline O’Brien) when the child’s frantic Aunt Bea (Amy Madigan) and her husband Lionel (Titus Welliver) knock on their door, thinking that low-profile locals who aren’t carrying badges or guns might be able to uncover fresh evidence.
The police investigation is being led by the soon-to-retire Jack Doyle (Morgan Freeman), head of the Crimes Against Children task force and his two best investigators, Remy Bressant (Ed Harris) and Nick Poole (John Ashton). They’ve interviewed the child’s mother Helene (Amy Ryan) dozens of times, but the inexperienced Kenzie and Angie ask different questions and get better answers. The drug-addict Helene has been dragged into a cocaine supply operation by a boyfriend, and the two soon discover there seems to be a connection between her and a powerful local drug lord, who has recently lost a pile of drug money.
There is infinite darkness here. Was the child abandoned or abducted by a paedophile? Kenzie and Angie use their street-smarts to isolate a suspect, but even to them, this development appears suspiciously convenient. Helene herself is clearly hiding something, but perhaps she is afraid of drawing any more attention to her hard-partying lifestyle. Then there is the police investigation, partly played out on the television news, which follows the standard procedure but with a distinct air of futility.
When we sit down to watch a hard-boiled detective story, typically the desire is to see somebody smart and straight-backed solve a problem, applying their curiosity and gut instinct to restore order. Here however, the issue transforms in the third act, from the hunt for a missing child into a bleak moral inquiry, a question of right and wrong that Kenzie must make a call on, even as he realises the case has become a zero-sum game without any hope for a satisfactory outcome. If he does the right thing he will cause people to suffer, if he does wrong, someone else will. He cannot do nothing.
In these late scenes, Affleck the director uses his brother’s mournful face and strangled voice to brilliant effect, even as he struggles to find a role for Monaghan’s point of view beyond providing a conscientious sounding board, looking to create a divide between the lovers that is undermined by the timid way their relationship has been drawn beforehand. Despite some decidedly shaky character development and the film’s uncomfortable resonance with the headlines, this is a film of genuine moral complexity, well played and handsomely photographed, made all the more involving by its immediacy and authenticity.