Cataclysm can begin without a sound.
That's the way it was with Amanda McCready, who vanished from her bed one night while her mother was away. The 4-year-old disappeared, as if she'd never been.
Her disappearance sparks a citywide obsession. The front of McCready's Boston home is a circus, filled with policemen and camera crews. And, as Amanda's mom looks on mournfully, her aunt sends a message to Amanda's kidnappers: We won't press charges—just give her back.
Police Chief Jack Doyle says he won't rest until he saves her. But for Amanda's aunt, it's not enough. She hires two young private investigators, Patrick Kenzie and his girlfriend, Angie Gennaro, who know the McCready neighborhood and may be able to find people who won't talk with the cops.
What they find is a dark, disturbing world. They discover that Amanda's mother, Helene, wasn't at a neighbor's when Amanda disappeared, as she claimed, but snorting cocaine at a local dive. She's a drug runner, too, and Amanda's disappearance starts to look like retribution for a deal gone wrong.
As the case twists and turns, Patrick and Angie grow more and more involved with the case. They must find Amanda—no matter the cost.
Gone Baby Gone is loaded with characters with the best of intentions. The road through this film is, in fact, paved with them.
Patrick is a tough, foul-mouthed guy raised on the mean streets, and he makes plenty of mistakes throughout the story. But he has an iron will and a strong (if sometimes warped) sense of justice. He stares down drug dealers and defends the honor of his girlfriend (albeit by coldcocking a guy propositioning her). And Patrick will do whatever he can to reunite Amanda with her mother.
Angie, meanwhile, only has eyes for the child's well-being. When it appears that Amanda was thrown in a lake, Angie plunges in after her—a dive of 50 feet or so—injuring herself in the process.
Nearly every major character, it seems, has Amanda's best interests at heart. Her aunt zealously searches for her. Det. Remy Broussard tells Patrick how much he loves children. Jack Doyle may want to save the girl more than anyone: His own daughter was kidnapped and killed years before.
"My little girl likely died crying out for me to save her," he tells Patrick. "And I never did."
Helene, meanwhile, appears almost indifferent to Amanda's fate early on. But about midway through the search she comes to a greater awareness that this little girl—her little girl—is in grave danger, and we watch as Helene's heart begins to break bit by bit.
The spiritual groundwork for Gone Baby Gone is laid out at the very beginning, with Patrick solemnly reciting Matthew 10:16:
"Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: Be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves."
The movie is, in some ways, a morality tale—but one in which traditional choices of what's right and wrong are turned on their heads. Its moral quandaries seem intended to force us to probe our traditional, largely Christian values.
Points are driven home through constant visual touchstones. Many characters wear crosses around their necks. Catholic icons of Jesus and Mary are seen in houses. After Angie gets injured trying to save Amanda, she stares at a cross on the wall of her hospital room. And when a detective dies in a shootout, he's buried in a Russian Orthodox ceremony.
[Spoiler Warning] One heartbreaking bit of religious imagery is a medallion of St. Christopher, who in Catholic lore is said to have carried the Christ child across a river. An abducted and presumed dead 7-year-old boy was last seen wearing the medallion around his neck; Patrick later sees the medallion slung around the wrist of a convicted pedophile.
Patrick kills the pedophile, execution style, after seeing the body of the boy. Det. Broussard congratulates Patrick on a job well done, but Patrick responds by saying that shame is God's way of telling him he's done something wrong—and he's filled with shame.
"Murder is a sin," he tells Broussard. "Depends on who you do it to," Broussard says. "That's not how it works," Patrick says. "It is what it is."
[Spoiler Warning] The pedophile took the boy in order to keep him as a sex slave. When Patrick bursts in on the man, he's cowering in a corner, saying, "It was an accident." We never see more than a glimpse of the boy's dead face as he lies in a bathtub, but we do see his bloody underwear soaking in a sink, a soul-piercing image that leaves us to imagine in horror what the "accident" might have involved.
Thus, while sex is never suggested as a motivation for Amanda's kidnapping, sexual themes form a steady undercurrent here.
Patrick remembers Helene from high school because she was apparently having sex with a schoolmate. When he mentions the high school connection to Helene, they joke that her old boyfriend became a "fag." During an expletive-filled confrontation at a bar, a patron makes a couple of crude come-ons to Angie. A drug dealer named Cheese also forces Angie to lift up her shirt (revealing a black bra) to prove she hasn't been wired by police. A woman in a skimpy halter top hovers around Cheese for part of the interview.
Detectives partake in a bloody shootout at the house of the pedophile and his two associates: One detective gets shot in the neck, and blood pours through his fingers as he tries to hold the wound shut. When the detective goes down, Patrick storms the house and finds one of the owners facedown in the living room, apparently dead. He's chased through the house by a gun-wielding woman and stumbles upon the pedophile and the corpse of the child. He vomits.
The next thing moviegoers see is the pedophile on his knees, staring at the floor, a gun pointed at the back of his head. Patrick fires the weapon and blood sprays.
There's also an intentionally confusing gunfight at a quarry reservoir in which at least one, possibly two people are killed. A masked man points a gun at Amanda's Uncle Lionel at a bar. He's gunned down by the bartender. And he dies slowly.
Patrick and Angie run into problems at another bar. Patrons lock the two in before Patrick flashes a gun—encouraging them to unlock the door. On the way out, a patron propositions Angie, and Patrick punches him in the face, knocking him to the ground.
Detectives find Helene's boyfriend dead—covered in blood and tied to a chair. Later, we learn the boyfriend was beaten with a pipe and shot in the chest.
Crude or Profane Language
At least 125 f-words. About 20 s-words. Armfuls of milder expletives include "a--," "b--ch" and "d--n." God's and Jesus' names are misused a half-dozen or so times each.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Helene is no June Cleaver. She goes to the bar almost every day and, according to Lionel, uses cocaine about three times a week. Bar regulars say she often brought Amanda with her, too. Helene confesses she's a "mule," meaning she sometimes transports drugs for Cheese.
We later see Cheese snorting cocaine, then lighting and smoking a cigarette or joint.
Lionel is a recovering alcoholic. And during a tense talk with Patrick at a bar, he orders three shots and a chaser. We see him drink one of the shots. "Twenty-three years is something, right?" he says.
Other Negative Elements
We learn that detectives Broussard and Poole once planted evidence in a guy's house, effectively sending him to prison. Helene and her boyfriend have stolen money from Cheese.
[Spoilers are necessary in order to fully deal with the morality—and immorality—of this movie. Several are found in this "Conclusion."]
After a tireless search, Patrick untangles the web around Amanda's disappearance and finds her living at the home of Jack Doyle, the police chief. Turns out, the kidnapping was a plot to get the child away from bad-news Helene and into the hands of a family who could better care for her.
The discovery leaves Patrick with a hefty dilemma: leave the child with Jack and his wife, or call the police, who will return Amanda to her unstable, natural mother?
Patrick calls the cops.
But Gone Baby Gone wants us to hate this decision. Doyle oozes integrity. Helene is an absolute mess. We see flashes of humanity in her, but we all know what Amanda's upbringing will be like if she returns to Helene's custody.
Here's the thing, though: If we fully engage with this take-it-or-leave-it decision the film forces on us, we have to come to grips with the fact that Patrick makes the absolute right call. It's right legally. It's right morally. Neighbors and "friends" just can't go nabbing kids from their parents' homes just because they think they're bad parents.
And here's another bit of truth: Not only do we have laws against snatching other people's kids, but we also have systems to protect children from dangerously irresponsible parents. There are other remedies for Amanda than having a police chief steal her.
Film directors, lately, have fallen in love with vigilantism. Death Sentence. The Brave One. We Own the Night. Now add Gone Baby Gone, since it tells us that sometimes a greater good can be served by breaking the law. The logic that drives this affection falls apart, of course, when we begin to ask whose "greater good" we're talking about. Society's "greater good" can be drawn a thousand different ways. If we were all allowed to create and ignore laws based on the whims of our own internal moral compasses, some of us might start gunning down our neighbors because they let their grass grow too high.
This is why we place ourselves under higher authority—under God's law and under a nation's laws. We accept those laws because we know they're good for us, even when they might have flaws and cracks in them.
Gone Baby Gone reminds us that we must always strive to wield these laws with fairness and compassion. But it also sets us up to question the laws themselves.
A postscript: Scripture is full of passages that remind us of what happens when everyone does what is right in his or her own eyes. Deuteronomy 12, Judges 17 and 21, Job 32, and Proverbs 12 and 21 all tackle this seemingly modern subject that is in reality nowhere near to being new under the sun.