Gone Baby Gone (Afleck, 2007): Moral Dilemma for the Righteous

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Title: Gone Baby Gone
Director: Ben Affleck
Language: English
Year: 2007
Critical Reception: 72% on Metacritic. Amy Ryan was nominated for Best Supporting Actress by the Academy (Oscar) for her turn in the film.
Psych Index: Social Relations, Drug Addiction
In Brief: Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) and his girlfriend/business partner Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan) made a living by finding people who run away from their debts. Beatrice 'Bea' McCready, mistaken them for private detectives specializing in finding "missing people", hired the pair to find her niece, who have been abducted from the home she lived in with her mother, the drugged out, absent Helene McCready (Amy Ryan). Patrick and Angie soon found themselves getting more involved than they intended, and a simple case of a missing girl turned into a morality tale that was not too unlike author Dennis Lehane 's other work, Mystic River (directed by Clint Eastwood).

Gone Baby Gone began as a human interest story - the story of a missing girl and the repercussion on the family that followed. It then changed its pursuit to that of a police thriller / mystery, and finally, an attempt at a moral play. Affleck (director) smartly let his brother (Casey Affleck in the role of Patrick Kenzie) occupy the film in full, supporting him with borrowed scenes from some of the best films in the genre (such as the scene with Ed Harris on the roof top that was reminiscent of a similar scene from Heat).

Patrick Kenzie was a rather interesting choice for a protagonist. He seemed to traverse equally comfortably between the criminal underworld and the ones that kept an eye on them. His partner and lover, Angie Gennaro, though quite willing to dive into the dark corners of humanity with him if she must, did not feel the same comfort Patrick felt. In her indignant stance, the innocent and the guilty are light years apart. And she was quite willing to negotiate in whichever ways to preserve what she deemed to be a clear line between the two. Meanwhile, Patrick needed to do what was right at the time, and not what could be right for the future. Perhaps it was no surprise that their relationship ended up the way it did, considering how she would view their difference as indicative of their future together. To a third party spectator, her decision felt rather like a dramatic orchestration for the sake of the moral point than a possible real life scenario. As a piece of the moral play though, it made sense.

In a nutshell, Gone Baby Gone asked the same question previously presented by Clint Eastwood in Mystic River: what would it take to "do the right thing" because it is right to do it? Everything, apparently. When the going gets rough, one has to prepare to wage war against everything and everyone else if one must, to defend that moral choice. It was no surprise that the two films were adapted from the two books written by the same author, Dennis Lehane. But, what exactly is doing the right thing, anyhow?

The film's moral point revolved around the uncertain future of a human being - a little girl born and raised in conditions not known to nurture and stimulate growth potential. The question became whether you would 'side' with something obviously morally questionable in order to secure a life presumably in a more flourishing environment? Patrick, our protagonist, was faced with a dilemma: one decision that would completely change his character arc, and one decision that would strengthen it. It was important to his character to act on the assumption that something good could arise from such dark places, as he himself was raised in the same environment that the girl was being raised in. The film smartly let him live with the immediate consequence of his decision, with no bells or softer cushion attached.

It has been documented by research that impoverished environment could limit certain growth potential. Lab rats were found to be protected against many mental set backs when they were raised in stimulating environment rather than impoverished one (e.g. protection against lead poisoning). In the 1960s, researchers found that animals reared in an environment filled with interactive stimuli, including toys, grew a thicker and heavier cerebral cortex than those raised in an empty laboratory cage. In one human case, researchers found that children raised in conditions in which they were rarely touched or spoken to had alterations in their brains and deficits in brain function. However, submerging the children in intensely stimulating environment appeared to work in bringing back some functions (for an accessible list of other things a stimulating environment can do, click here).

Now, the Mozart Effect claim (that children would be smarter from exposure to Mozart as an infant) had proven to be strenuous (Levitin, 2006), and one could not say for certain poverty would mean under-stimulated environment. People who are poor may be stimulated in different ways than those with more opportunities for a wider range of options in life, but not necessarily less so. Certainly, there was child neglect going on in the McCready household. There was also exposure to dangerous activities, such as drug dealing and using. Perhaps these were the best arguments for the other side of the moral coin; Children Services in various places used these arguments for years to remove children from their "arsenic" parents. It was interesting that child service was not brought into the picture in the film; one would think that a severe case of child neglect could be brought to some governmental agency and her adoption could have been a legal one. The film, unfortunately, presented only two possibilities for their characters to choose from, when there was a third one (or more) for each character waiting just outside their narrow framework.

From psychological perspectives, such as those of Satir and Adler, mental health starts with the social environment; we can not address only the individual's needs and ignore system the individual is in. Certainly moving individuals from one environment to another is not addressing the system's working wheels; it merely creates certain trauma for the individual while her future remains unknown (sure the new family is richer, but the couple is old, making her future more uncertain than it already is). At the same time, allowing her to live in the same place knowing that she would have to endure a neglectful and toxic environment would seem rather cruel. Between the two difficult moral choices, there has to be a third option not considered, one that would address - however imperfectly - both concerns.

All the characters in the film operated from an individualistic point of view, where there was an assumed direct cause and effect between two single points: the agent and the object (in this case, the child). At no time a more systematic approach was suggested. Was it really necessary to completely and dramatically uproot a child in order to provide her the presumably more stimulating environment (certainly a more privileged one)? Was it really necessary to return her to exactly where she found herself, out of her mother's mind? What about promoting Helen's and the child's welfare within the social system? Everyone could have offered help to Helen in getting a job, child support, and perhaps some counseling. Where is the systematic challenge?

While Gone Baby Gone raised some important issues and portrayed a true-to-life slice of a much neglected corner of society in an engaging and touching story, the film did not go far enough in its examination. It remained just another abstract, orchestrated moral play, however well made three quarters of the film were.

Levitin, D. J. (2006). This is your brain on music. A Plume Book: NY.

-Is the break-up too artificial?
-Systematic versus individualistic
-Replicating scenes of other films, such as Heat.

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2 Response to Gone Baby Gone (Afleck, 2007): Moral Dilemma for the Righteous

October 14, 2010 at 5:42 AM

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December 7, 2010 at 2:52 PM

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