Horror hits hardest when it feels real. Although Ben Affleck’s Gone Baby Gone starring Casey Affleck, Michelle Monaghan, and Amy Ryan in an award-winning performance, is a mystery thriller that leans heavily into horror as the film unfolds. Affleck’s Patrick Kenzie is a private investigator hired to find a little girl who went missing from his gritty Boston neighborhood. He was employed for his connections and history in the community. It’s a brilliant but nasty piece of storytelling that blurs the lines between morality and justice. Gone Baby Gone also leaves you with an uncomfortable lingering question. What would you do? Which side would you be on?
After numerous deaths, including a few police officers, Patrick finally learns that Amanda is not dead or being exploited by criminals but living with retired Captain Jack Dole. When he confronts Doyle about his role in Amanda’s kidnapping, he finds her happy and healthy. Patrick had originally thought the child died in a botched attempt to save her from her mother. However, he later realized the conspiracy went even deeper.
The entire police force and Lionel, Helene’s brother, conspired against Helene to kidnap Amanda for her safety. Lionel knew firsthand what a terrible mother Helene was. She had almost killed her once already by leaving her in a hot car for hours while she partied. Many members of the force, under the guidance of Captain Doyle, constructed and carried out an elaborate scheme to save the child. Doyle and his wife would raise Amanda as their own and spare her a lifetime of struggle or worse.
Doyle couldn’t stand to see another child fall into the cracks. He feels tremendous guilt for not being able to save a child that died close to his house earlier in his career. That child’s death haunted him and led to the eventual kidnapping of Amanda. Doyle genuinely and fairly (depending on your mindset) believes he is saving Amanda by removing her from her mother’s custody. He thinks if he allows Amanda to stay with her drug-addicted, neglectful mother, she will be doomed to a life of poverty and crime. That is assuming she makes it to adulthood. He tells Patrick as much as justification for taking her. Patrick has his own demons, however, and they prevent him from looking the other way.
Patrick is struggling to live with his decision to kill the pedophile who kidnapped, tortured, and killed a young boy. Despite Ed Harris’ Remy Bressant telling him about planting evidence to save a child and Angie praising him, Patrick is disgusted with himself. He lives in a black-and-white world where the law is there for a reason, and rules should always be followed. This is ultimately why he decided to turn Doyle in and return Amanda to her mother. He truly believes it is better to follow the law and leave Amanda’s fate to chance rather than allowing her to grow up in a family that wasn’t hers. His argument is Amanda deserved to know who her biological family was. He also desperately hoped Helene would be scared straight and clean up.
In all likelihood, Patrick’s decision was made for him when he shot the pedophile earlier in the film. He was so wracked with guilt he couldn’t live with another crime on his hands. He tells Remy he wouldn’t have made the same decision if faced with it again. Patrick believes it because, to him, some lines should never be crossed. He is committed to societal order and trusts in the system even when he is forced to confront the ambiguity of that system. Patrick is atoning for murdering the pedophile by strictly adhering to the law.
It’s the same philosophical question as “Should you kill baby Hitler before he becomes the monster he becomes”? One side argues baby Hitler is still innocent and thus worthy of being spared, while the other side argues he is destined to be a killer and should be destroyed before he can kill millions. In the closing moments of Gone Baby Gone, Patrick has his worst fears realized. After Amanda and Helene reunite, Patrick visits Helene. He finds her prepared to leave her daughter alone to go on a date with what can only be described as a potential stalker. Not only is she cavalier about leaving her child with an appropriate sitter, but she still clearly values her happiness over that of her child.
Patrick may have made the correct choice legally and philosophically, but morally it was a heartbreaking one. Amanda had a right to raise her child. She might have changed. Helene doesn’t appear to have changed, though, and Patrick’s decision might ruin Amanda’s life. In Moonlight Mile, the conclusion to Dennis Lehane’s Kenzie and Gennaro series, we learn Amanda’s fate. Although it isn’t as bad as it could have been. Amanda’s life has not been easy, and she blames Patrick for bringing her back to Helene all those years ago. Against all odds, Amanda is a relatively decent person, but arguably she would have been happier and had more opportunities with Doyle.
Doyle’s decision to “save” Amanda had ripple effects. Several people lost their lives. Others, including Lionel and Doyle, went to jail, and Amanda lost her Aunt and Uncle. Gone Baby Gone seems to argue that even right decisions can be wrong and stain everything with corruption. In a gray world where things seldom are entirely right or wrong or good or bad, every choice comes with consequences.
The controversial ending is stunning and painful because it forces us to examine the difference between what is morally right and legally right. Is there a difference? Should there be one? Doyle, many members of the police force, and Patrick’s girlfriend Angie all argue sometimes bad things are necessary to save good people. To them, the ends justify the means. The murky morality play messes with your head because the contradiction between head and heart is ruthlessly exploited. Probably the biggest question isn’t what would you do but could you live with your decision?
Gone Baby Gone is currently streaming on HBO Max.
As the Managing Editor for Signal Horizon, I love watching and writing about genre entertainment. I grew up with old-school slashers, but my real passion is television and all things weird and ambiguous. My work can be found here and Travel Weird, where I am the Editor in Chief.