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Top Movies of the Decade #7

Another thing I’m a total sucker for:  movies that wrestle with difficult philosophical/ethical questions in an intelligent way.   Like “Gone Baby Gone,”  which questions when and how, if ever, it’s appropriate to play God.

Here’s my original review:

“Gone Baby Gone” is a movie to watch with people you like to argue with. Plan to go out for coffee afterwards and to talk late into the night, discussing the ethical implications of good and bad deeds. Don’t take a date to see it; there’s a good chance you’ll just spend the drive home fighting. But do see it. It’s one of the best movies of the year.

Casey Affleck plays Patrick Kenzie, a P.I. in Boston who, alongside his partner and girlfriend (Michelle Monaghan,) specializes in Missing Persons cases – which usually means finding deadbeats who have “disappeared” so they don’t have to make their car payments. But when a little girl is kidnapped in their neighborhood, the frantically concerned aunt asks them to help out with the case. They are out of their depth even before the first plot twist, but at least they know how to talk to the locals — and which locals are worth talking to.

I’ve never been to Boston, but lately it has been the most compelling place to set a movie. From “Good Will Hunting” to “Mystic River” to “The Departed,” the city itself has come to function almost as a character more than a setting. “Gone Baby Gone” fully utilizes that functionality. There is a Boston mythology developing that’s somewhat similar to the West: a “Boston movie” functions something like a Western, in that it has its own rules. The setting determines not only how the characters will talk, but how they’ll behave; what will happen in the movie, and to whom, what will work, what won’t. If a movie’s set in Boston, I know what to expect.

Also investigating the kidnapping are a legendary police chief (Morgan Freeman) and his ace detective team (Ed Harris and John Ashton.) They are shining beacons of the community with hidden pasts. The movie comes to a dead stop about halfway through, case closed. But as with most police procedurals, Kenzie has a sneaking hunch the answers he’s getting from them are too simple. It’s not until the revelation of a seeming insignificant detail leads to an “aha” moment in the third act that it all fits together. The final twist presents Kenzie with an ethical choice that will keep you talking for days, if only to yourself; watching the movie a second time, I was impressed at how the movie asks the same question quietly earlier in the movie before blasting it loudly in the final moments. This is a well-constructed script.

“Gone Baby Gone” is Ben Affleck’s directorial debut, and already I have a higher opinion of him behind the camera than in front of it. Casting his kid brother in the lead may smell like nepotism, but the younger Affleck delivers, in his particular way. Just a few weeks after being thoroughly creeped out by his performance in “The Assassination of Jesse James,” I wondered if he could really convince me he’s a good guy. He does. As for the elder Affleck, he directs with a steady hand and a studious avoidance of flash or trickery. He is wise enough to know this story is strong enough to stand on its own, and gets out of its way. Perhaps Affleck’s biggest weakness is that he doesn’t give Michelle Monaghan enough to do – as the feminine half of the detective duo, she mostly stands around and looks shocked or weepy.

It’s a rare movie that manages to be moral without being preachy. There are hints scattered through the movie that Patrick Kenzie is a believing Catholic, not just a practicing one, and his final decision is undoubtedly made in light of that conviction. “Gone Baby Gone” is my favorite kind of movie – one that goes beyond character and plot, script and setting, and attains, or at least aims, for something universal – a examination, as well as a question, about the way things are in the world, and how we should behave accordingly. For that reason, it’s my favorite movie so far this year.


  • wholeheartedly. I loved this movie.
  • if you’ve ever lived in Boston, or ever wanted to.
  • if you enjoyed “Mystic River.” Both movies are based on Dennis Lehane novels.
  • if you love thinking about movies for weeks after you’ve seen them.

Not Recommended

  • if disturbing, violent subject matter involving children unhinges you.
  • if you’re addicted to nice, clean, happy endings.
  • if the whole Bennifer thing made you swear off anything Ben Affleck ever touched, ever again.
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Posted in All Reviews.

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