Gone Baby Gone (2007)
Directed by Ben Affleck
Screenplay by Ben Affleck & Aaron Stockard (based on the novel by Dennis Lehane)
I was in two minds about submitting Gone Baby Gone into the ReelGood Classic Screenplay canon. I mean, it’s a classy film—one of my top ten, easy—a harrowing thriller that poses a colossal moral dilemma. But it’s also an adaptation of a novel by Dennis Lehane (Eastwood’s Mystic River was based on another of Lehane’s novels), so in a great sense, the screenplay was ahead of the eight ball—not that every adaptation is foolproof, mind you. It wasn’t until I found and read the screenplay for Gone Baby Gone that I decided to do this article. Why? Because the screenplay I found wasn’t entirely what ended up on screen; and, thankfully, whatever draft I read wasn’t the final shooting script. And this is important lesson for writers, filmmakers, and even, maybe, audiences: nothing’s infallible. Even if you base your screenplay on a successful novel, that doesn’t guarantee you a classic screenplay and film. Like Michelangelo said: “If you know how much hard work went into it, you wouldn’t call it genius.”
Oh, but so much of Gone Baby Gone is genius (at least as far as I’m concerned). I mean, it’s got smack-talkin’ worthy of Shawshank Prison, it’s got a harrowing ending that leaves a conflicted hero bereft, it poses the aforementioned moral dilemma that most of us would wrestle with, and (not that the screenplay can take much of the credit) it’s got Michelle Monaghan.
Marking the directorial debut for one Ben Affleck, Gone Baby Gone follows private investigators Patrick Kenzie (Ben’s bro Casey Affleck) and Angie Gennaro (Monaghan) as they struggle to find a missing four-year-old girl. It’s little surprise the girl is missing given her mother is a crackhead, and although the police are on the case (Ed Harris is unhinged as fiery detective Remy Bressant), the girl’s aunt hire Patrick and Angie to augment the investigation—they know people who won’t talk to the police. Add Morgan Freeman, and Gone Baby Gone is gripping throughout. I’m keeping mum on anymore plot details because to spoil the twists for someone who hasn’t seen this is not something I want to be responsible for.
Reading the screenplay, I realised the film was immediately different. In screenwriting 101, the opening in the original screenplay would get the nod: it starts with a mini sequence of Patrick and Angie searching for and locating a missing youth: a mildly exciting opening that shows us who they are and what they do. Yet the poignant, poetic voice over that appears in the film tells us in a much more enjoyable way. The voice over also better establishes Patrick’s earnest Christianity, foreshadowing the dilemma to come.
It’s worth watching, but for our purposes here, it’s also worth reading:
Patrick (V.O.): I always believed it was the things you don’t choose that make you who you are. Your city, your neighbourhood, your family. People here take pride in these things, like it was something they’d accomplished. The bodies around their souls; the cities wrapped around those. I lived on this block my whole life. Most of these people have. When your job is to find people who are missing, it helps to know where they started. I find the people who started in the cracks, and then fell through. This city can be hard. When I was young I asked my priest, how you could get to Heaven and still protect yourself from all the evil in the world. He told me what God said to his children: you are sheep among wolves; be wise as serpents, yet innocent as doves.
Now compare that to the original:
Patrick (V.O.): To people who grow up here, this city is like family. The thing about family, about the city, about the church, about the people you grow up with—is that no matter how much they hurt you, no matter what the cost is, you still love them. And despite all our flaws—what we do to each other—what is done to us—I’ve always felt proprietary about it all. Like the old commercial for dog food: ‘Doesn’t your dog deserve to be treated like a member of the family?’ I’ve always believed it depended on the dog. Beyond that, the most I thought about anything was what I wanted to do. Who I wanted to be. To rise where my father said I couldn’t go, to succeed. To be a man.
Scarcely as elegant, is it? This voice over is bookended at the end of the screenplay, and the result is heavy-handed and ultimately unnecessary. The quiet, meditative ending that we get in the film is much more powerful.
That powerful, harrowing ending hinges on Patrick’s journey, and Detective Remmy Bressant plays devil’s advocate to Patrick’s faith in Gone Baby Gone. For example:
Patrick: My priest said shame is God’s way of telling you what you did was wrong.
Bressant: Fuck him.
Patrick: Murder is a sin.
Bressant: Depends on who you do it to.
Patrick: It don’t work like that. It is what it is.
Bressant goes on (in an Ed Harris monologue for the ages) to regale Patrick about the time he planted evidence on a guy to liberate his neglected child from a bad home.
And in a less contentious example:
Patrick: What kind of name is Bressant?
Bressant: The kind they give you in Louisiana.
Patrick: I thought you were from here.
Bressant: Depends on how you look at it. You might think you’re more from here than I am, for example. But then again, I’ve been living here longer than you been alive. So who’s right?
Patrick: I’ll mull it over.
Whether it all came from the novel or not, this is what makes Gone Baby Gone a classic screenplay and a classy film. Rivet us with a twisting thriller, sure, but fill it with both minor and major questions that make us as an audience think … that makes us think about what we’d do in such a situation, that makes us reaffirm our own assumptions about life… bravo!
I urge you to watch Gone Baby Gone. I implore you. Hell, watch it twice and be awed as all the pieces connect together before you. You won’t be in two minds about its gravitas. Oh, and the smack-talkin’ I mentioned? Check it: