Gone Baby Gone is one of those rare movies that truly makes you debate about it’s ending. For most people, it even makes them rage. On the iMDb message boards, there’s over one hundred comments in reply to the simple question “Was he right or wrong?”
Gone Baby Gone features a compelling protagonist, Casey Afleck who plays Patrick, a street-wise private detective. He is hired by the family of a missing girl, Amanda, to help find her. Amanda’s mother, Helene, is a belligerent drug addict and drunk, who doesn’t take very good care of her little girl.
The twist of the film is that Amanda’s uncle conspired with the Captain of the missing children’s unit to take Amanda away from her mother forever. When the uncle’s wife (unknowledgeable of the plan) hired Patrick to investigate the supposed missing girl, they had to stage Amanda’s death. Eventually Patrick discovers Amanda alive and well living with Captain Doyle, played by Morgan Freeman. And that question of the right or wrong decision is put to the test.
Throughout the film, Patrick struggles with what is considered right and wrong mostly because of his Catholic beliefs. He experiences Catholic guilt for murdering a pedophile. His conversation with Detective Bressant illustrates the overall themes of the film, and ultimately the ending.
Patrick: My priest says shame is god telling you what you did was wrong.
Detective: Fuck him.
Patrick: Murder’s a sin.
Detective: Depends on who you do it to. Would you do it again? Clip Corwin Earle?
Detective: Does that make you right?
Patrick: I don’t know.
Detective: It doesn’t make it wrong, though, does it?
After all, this man was raping and killing children. Didn’t he deserve to be killed? This conversation also voices the concerns of the audience, not just about the situation of murder, but whether Patrick should let Amanda stay with the Captain or go back to her mother.
The root of the decision Patrick must make is what makes a good or bad mother. Motherhood, and parenting in general, is complicated. So many parents or mothers are judgmental of how others are raising their children. There’s battles of breast feeding vs. not breast feeding, iPads for kids or completely ban them, or the ultimate, working mom vs. stay at home mom. All these battles come with reasons why if you choose one side that makes you a bad parent.
Mothers, not fathers, are ultimately the ones with whom society judges. Motherhood is supposed to be instinctual, the one thing that women are made for. Therefore we are all supposed to live up to these highly unrealistic expectations of what makes a ‘good mother’. These expectations are often quite unfounded and highly unreachable.
But these type of mommy wars certainly don’t apply to Helene. At least those mothers are doing something that’s debated upon. Amy Ryan plays Helene Oscar-nominated performance, and what we see of her shows that Helene does not even care demonstrate any type of parenting skills to even debate about.
Amanda’s uncle, who conceived this plan to take Amanda away, tells a story of how she left her three-year old locked in a hot car for hours, leaving her literally roasting. We see in flashbacks that Helene would rather leave her kid alone in the house while she goes on drug runs. And in one of the first scenes after her daughter has been kidnapped we see her not as a typical grieving and worried mom, but just sitting on the couch watching Jerry Springer. So, yes, Helene seems to be what most would consider unequivocally a bad mother. She seems not to miss her child when she’s gone, and cares little for her child when she’s there.
For the twist, when Patrick discovers Amanda with the Captain, the film departs from the book. In the book, Patrick had called the police beforehand and after seeing Amanda was happy, he could do nothing about it. The film changes it by having Patrick make the decision himself right then and there, we see him grapple with it and the audience does as well. His girlfriend believes he should keep mum and let her stay, but Patrick believes that would be the wrong thing. He finds himself at a crossroads. Patrick and Captain Doyle also discuss their sides of the issue, leaving the audience to continue to wrestle with the decision.
Patrick: I’m calling state police in five minutes. They’ll be here in ten.
Captain: Thought you would’ve done that by now. You know why you haven’t? Because you think this might be an irreparable mistake. Because deep inside you, you know it doesn’t matter what the rules say. When the lights go out, and you ask yourself “is she better off here or better off there”, you know the answer. And you always will. You… you could do a right thing here. A good thing. Men live their whole lives without getting this chance. You walk away from it, you may not regret it when you get home. You may not regret it for a year, but when you get to where I am, I promise you, you will. I’ll be dead, you’ll be old. But she… she’ll be dragging around a couple of tattered, damaged children of her own, and you’ll be the one who has to tell them you’re sorry.
Patrick: You know what? Maybe that’ll happen. And if it does, I’ll tell them I’m sorry and I’ll live with it. But what’s never gonna happen and what I’m not gonna do is have to apologize to a grown woman who comes to me and says: “I was kidnapped when I was a little girl, and my aunt hired you to find me. And you did, you found me with some strange family. But you broke your promise and you left me there. Why? Why didn’t you bring me home? Because all the snacks and the outfits and the family trips don’t matter. They stole me. It wasn’t my family and you knew about it and you knew better and you did nothing”. And maybe that grown woman will forgive me, but I’ll never forgive myself.
Captain: I did what I did for the sake of the child. All right. For me, too. But now, I’m asking you for the sake of the child. I’m begging you. You think about it.
This is no easy decision. It’s something that would effect the outcome of Amanda’s life forever. Like the murder of the pedophile, does the taking away of Amanda matter if you look at who they’re doing it to? Doesn’t Helene deserve it?
Patrick mentions money, saying that all the material objects and comfort they provided is not what makes a good parent. This is true, there are probably many rich parents who spend superfluous amounts on their children but aren’t really there for them. But Patrick fails to see, or chooses to overlook the fact that the Captain and his wife would love her. They would provide beautiful memories and happiness for her, rich or poor didn’t matter.
What could Helene offer? She’s neglectful, cares more about men and drugs then her daughter. Leaves her all alone in the house, or in hot cars.
And motherhood is not what is the only issue here, it is also the law. Religion requires you to abide by rules, clearly defining what is good vs. what is bad. The laws of our country acts that, too. The laws and rules tell us what is right and wrong, it is set there and we should not question it.
But Patrick knows, just as the rules of Catholicism tells him murder is bad, that the law distinguishes that this what the Captain has done is kidnapping. The laws and rules know what is right and what is wrong. We should not follow our hearts.
Gone Baby Gone asks the question: What do we do when morality opposes the law? Patrick believes it was wrong for Captain Doyle to kidnap the child, whether or not her mother was unfit. The Captain believes believed it would be wrong to leave the child in the care of a poor mother, regardless of how the justice system would see it.
Patrick calls the police, and Amanda is returned to her mother. Captain Doyle and the Uncle are sent to jail. In a gut-punching of an ending scene we are left to see the remnants of Patrick’s decision.
Patrick stops by Helene’s house, where she is getting ready for a date. The guy saw Helene on some TV appearances, so she is clearly benefitting from her daughter’s abduction. Amanda is sitting on the couch, watching T.V. Patrick offers to babysit and sits on the couch by her. He notices her doll, which had been on display on news channels as the last thing she was carrying. He asks “Is that Mirabelle” Amanda replies, “Annabelle” leading us to believe that Helene didn’t pay attention enough to even know the name of her daughter’s favorite doll.
Gone Baby Gone tells us that what rules and laws consider the ‘right’ thing to do is not always what you should do. When laws and morality mix, there is not always one clearly defined right or wrong.
The film asks the audience, what would you have done? (Personally, if I were in Patrick’s shoes I would’ve let the Captain keep her.) Do you think he was right or wrong? Was there no such thing as right and wrong in this situation?