Gone, Baby, Gone: who’s fit to be a parent?

With echoes of recent high-profile child abductions, Ben Affleck’s crime drama poses a modern moral dilemma.

Rob Lyons

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I remember when I heard Shannon Matthews had been found alive. Having been missing for almost a month early this year, nobody expected the nine-year-old from Dewsbury, Yorkshire to be safely returned. For a moment, it seemed like a minor miracle that, for once, the case of a missing child had a happy ending.

That moment of relief – and that sense of disappointment at the subsequent arrest of Shannon’s mother and other members of her extended family – came flooding back to me while watching Ben Affleck’s directorial debut, Gone, Baby, Gone. Although the film was released in October 2007 in the US, it was held back until last Friday in the UK due to sensitivity surrounding the high-profile case of Madeleine McCann, the then three-year-old who disappeared from a Portugese holiday resort last May.

As a number of reviewers have pointed out, the plot of Gone, Baby, Gone bears at least as much relation to the Shannon Matthews case as to that of Madeleine McCann. A young girl, Amanda, goes missing in Boston, generating enormous police and media interest. The girl’s drug addict mother, Helene, seems uninterested, but her aunt is desperate and after initial inquiries draw a blank, she turns to the young local private detective Patrick McKenzie (played by Affleck’s brother, Casey) and his girlfriend (Michelle Monaghan), to do the kind of asking around that the police seem incapable of.

What follows is driven by McKenzie’s peeling away of one layer after another in his efforts to get at the truth. As such, Gone, Baby, Gone is a superior whodunnit – with the usual murder replaced by a kidnapping – and there are all the usual twists and turns along the way.

It could easily have ended up as an entertaining, if lightweight, popcorn flick, in a similar vein to the film adaptations of John Grisham’s novels. But Gone, Baby, Gone proves to be considerably more interesting than that; it asks difficult questions and doesn’t provide easy answers. With a good script (co-written by Ben Affleck) and a top drawer cast, including the ever watchable Ed Harris and Morgan Freeman, plus an Oscar-nominated turn from Amy Ryan as Helene, there have been few better films in recent years.

The film asks what rights a degenerate mother like Helene should have? It quickly becomes obvious that if she had been a responsible parent, her child would never have been abducted. Even if little Amanda is found, the film asks, wouldn’t she be better off living away from such a feckless woman?

This moral question has increasingly practical consequences. For example, the authorities in the UK are taking an evermore interventionist stance in relation to children; the notion of parental autonomy is under attack. Should those who ‘know better’ be granted the final say over the welfare of a child? Is being a parent a privilege, not a right?

Helene is an extreme case; a woman who prefers to get drunk and snort cocaine with her deadbeat boyfriend over looking after her child. In a way, she’s a cardboard cut-out flunky who is used to pose a stark ethical dilemma. But things don’t need to go anywhere near that extreme for the state to intervene today. On both sides of the Atlantic, children have been taken from their homes simply for being too fat, even if they are generally healthy and well looked after. More broadly, and less dramatically, there is a constant drone of advice to parents about what they should be doing, with the implication that children are vulnerable beings who can be screwed up by the slightest neglect.

Gone, Baby, Gone shows us the potential consequences of piling in to ‘do good’ before all the facts are known. As the plot unfolds, we are constantly asked to reassess the situation and determine what would be the best thing to do – especially in a killer finale, where McKenzie is left with a veritable judgement of Solomon. Society has traditionally decreed that the relationship of parent and child is a special one that should only be violated in extreme circumstances. As the film shows, outsiders should think carefully before leaping in based on assumptions about what is ‘best for the child’.

The film also reminds us of the resilience of people, most particularly children. Certain parents have often been messed up and useless, yet produced smart, independent children – forced to mature before their time in order to get by. Conversly, parents who dote on their kids and give them everything can sometimes produce losers. Children are not simply the product of their parents’ actions; successful individuals can’t be churned out by following the ‘correct’ parenting strategy.

Finally, a message to the director, Affleck. Please stick to writing scripts and directing movies. Your days of leading roles in turkeys like Pearl Harbor should be gone, baby, gone.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

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