Ben Affleck's Gone Baby Gone delivers all the requisite elements of a crime-genre thriller " and more. The classic whodunit sets up a crime and puts a detective on the case. Suspects are advanced and gradually dismissed until the guilty party is finally identified and brought to justice. Better work keeps its plot developments plausible and its conclusion successfully unpredictable. The best work manages surprises and reversals that we don't see coming but nonetheless prove consistent with preceding narrative information. Gone Baby Gone does all that very well and along the way steps beyond the expectations of the genre to become a provocative reflection on issues of legal philosophy and imperatives of moral behavior. Written by Affleck with Aaron Stockard and faithfully adapted from Dennis Lehane's bestselling novel, Gone Baby Gone is the story of a Boston kidnapping and the investigation that follows. Four-year-old Amanda McCready (Madeline O'Brien) is at first glance an unlikely kidnap victim. Her mother Helene (Amy Ryan) is an alcoholic and drug abuser with barely enough income to pay rent and buy groceries. So ransom would not seem to be a motive. That's bad news. People who snatch kids for reasons other than ransom simply disappear so successfully that only 10 percent of such cases are solved outside the critical window of the first 24 hours.
Two separate teams set out to find Amanda. A special police unit headed by Jack Doyle (Morgan Freeman) includes veteran detectives Remy Bressant (Ed Harris) and Nick Poole (John Ashton). Doyle is a decorated officer, and he lost his own child to murder. His personal history provides him urgent reasons to save Amanda, but after three days, she is still missing " at which point the child's distraught Aunt Beatrice (Amy Madigan) insists on hiring private detective Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck), a baby-faced 31-year-old who runs his agency out of his low-rent apartment with his beautiful girlfriend Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan). Patrick and Angie bring the advantage of living and having grown up in the tough working-class area where the crime took place.
When the private investigators join the case, they are met by the police with the kind of resentment and contempt that are a standard element in crime novels. Lehane, however, has provided an uncommonly convincing rationale for the police officers' thinly veiled hostility. For one thing, Patrick has clearly not been long off Boston's mean streets himself. There's no mention of a criminal past, but there's a pointed reference to his having once used hard drugs, and though he's slight of stature, Patrick carries himself with imposing steeliness. Something not revealed has made him exceedingly hard, and you can see why the cops regard him with suspicion and distaste.
In the picture's first reversal, it suddenly seems there may be a ransom angle to this case after all. Beatrice brought Patrick and Angie in because the Boston police were so unsuccessful in gaining the trust and cooperation of people in the neighborhood. Patrick and Angie know a lot of these people, and they quickly prove better able to get some folks to divulge information. What they learn is that Helene has been working part time as a mule for a local drug lord, transporting cocaine and heroin from the supplier at one bar to the dealer at another. Along the way, one drunken night, Helene and a boyfriend get the spiff idea of ripping off the drug lord. The rest of us would spot such a notion as a ticket to the morgue, but the ever fuzzy-brained Helene thinks the heist will secure her future. Then, shortly thereafter, Amanda goes missing.
This one narrative development would serve as the entirety of the average crime story. But Lehane and Affleck are just getting started, and there is much more to come. Critically, however, the filmmakers do not try to sustain this picture on the back of plot alone. The characters are developed in surprising depth. Helene, for instance, is in most every way odious. She is selfish and undisciplined. She is a terrible mother. Yet the film insists on her humanity. However misguided and infuriating she is, we believe that she loves Amanda. Then, as the picture hammers toward its complicated end, it dares to pose challenging questions about the sometimes strained relationship between the law and what's right. Gone Baby Gone will provide material for stimulating conversation long after it's over. And how many crime stories " how many movies period " accomplish that?