Ethics and Evil in South Boston

Progressives refer to the class Marx believed would transform capitalism into socialism, a historical era of flourishing human spirit, rid of the chains that tied creativity and imagination to the grind of factory labor and triviality of commerce.

Such utopian concepts dissolve when 4-year-old Amanda disappears with her favorite doll. A montage of decaying working class culture opens the setting. The dilapidating houses, streets, and bars remain, but a missing child provides a clue to the diseased moral essence of a South Boston neighborhood, once home to factories and factory workers.

Ben Affleck’s “Gone Baby Gone” based on Dennis (“Mystic River”) Lehane’s novel takes a police story and converts it into an examination of layers of evil and ethics. In modern working class Boston, the foundations of “good” have eroded with “competition,” which Bush claims “brings out the best in everybody.” This has meant union busting and withdrawal of government services and regulatory agencies that once checked corporate irresponsibility.

The film draws a fine line between “absolute sin” and “ethical miscalculations” in an age where millions have begun to find morality an elusive value.

A familiar opening scene shows media blanketing the vicinity of Amanda’s house, ubiquitous cops standing around. Neighbors — actual residents of Dorchester — grab their moments of immortality before the TV cameras. The disappearance of the adored kid has given rebirth–so it appears — to neighborhood solidarity. But heat does not lead to progress. So, Aunt Bea (Amy Madigan) hires a local PI, Patrick Kenzie, (Casey Affleck, the director’s younger brother.) The skinny but explosive man with a baby face and a large gun also grew up in the hood.

Amanda’s mother, Helene, (Amy Ryan) reveals herself as a poster girl for unfit mothers. Once, a solid set of values might have knitted this family together–maybe as late as the 1970s. But whatever set of ethics that once held working class families together has dissolved along with the work discipline of factories, mines and mills. The transformation of productive union workers into non-union service personnel without benefit of collective representation coincided with the mushrooming of shopping malls, the availability of drugs and the ethic of ever quicker gratification. Whatever virtues regarding solidarity and family bonding–even myths of virtues — might have once existed in such neighborhoods evaporated during the Reagan and post Reagan years.

Helene possesses no visible redeeming graces or support. She spends her welfare check on booze and coke ­- which she also “mules”–and leaves her four year old unsupervised. When she opens her mouth acid spews forth, her words made even sourer by her Southie accent, which doesn’t vary as do her moods and lame excuses and lies. Patrick connects the missing child with Helene’s drugs and loose lifestyle. You see him making an attempt not to despise Helene, but his partner girl friend Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan) cannot suppress her disgust for the amoral degeneracy of a coke whore and hopeless mother. Angie rejects the notion of investigating the girl’s disappearance–let the cops do it–but agrees when she sees Aunt Bea suffering over the missing child. In the process of their discovery, the audience peeks into the hearts and minds of the flotsam and jetsam that remain in the neighborhood tough bars. As Patrick looks for motive inside this druggy, boozy, criminal culture, he finds that crime goes with addiction as white goes with rice.

Patrick and Angie visit the grubby bar where Helene and her worthless–also drug mule–boy friend drank and snorted lines. The bar flies range from large and ugly to medium large and very ugly. In the novel, Dennis Lehane described “a woman [Angie] with intelligence, pride, and beauty enters a place like this and the men get a glimpse of all they’ve been missing, all they can never have. They’re forced to confront all the deficiencies of character that drove them to a dump like this in the first place. Hate, envy, and regret all smash through their stunted brains at once. And they decide to make the woman regret, too – regret her intelligence, her beauty, and, especially, her pride.”

Patrick must confront these despicable emotions, the remnants of class hatred transformed into envy and loathing for those who have better–looks, things, possibilities. Only violence can result from the cast of characters–two serious investigators on a quest–and a room of gruesome losers. Still in the neighborhood and street smart he stays in touch with high school buddies and swaps curses and profanities with them. Some have become thugs, but Patrick maintains a quiet dignity, he accepts them and doesn’t judge–outwardly — while constantly calculating how they might figure into solving the case.

Director Affleck (also co-author with Aaron Stockard of the screenplay) makes the neighborhood heavies advance the plot, while planting the seeds of an ethical dilemma. Likewise, he uses Lionel (Titus Welliver) Helene’s angry, un-articulate, recovering alcoholic brother, and Dotty (Jill Quigg), Helene’s central casting skanky friend to add powerful seasoning to the decaying neighborhood aroma.

Boston rapper Slaine, (drug dealing honcho, Cheese) leads Patrick to the apparent solution; but not quite. The mystery remains. Is the kid alive or dead? Patrick senses that something about the confluence of cops, family and criminal does not make sense, that the child’s disappearance may not have any relationship to a specific crime, but rather to something more arcane, larger than crime–something that he cannot easily place into a simple right-wrong, good-evil context. The camera establishes the context for moral decision by hanging on the poor posture of the neighbors, the pain in their faces, the corroding steps and stoops of the block as if to say: look at the pitiful grandchildren of a once proud working class. Look how far they have fallen!

Ed Harris the apparently corrupt and explosive detective plays second to Morgan Freeman who heads the department’s missing-children division. Freeman brings up the issue of sins against children, having lost a child of his own. Harris talks about cops being at war “and we’re not sinning.” The war is about values, or their death at the hands of a cruel culture. The cops who witnessed what humans do to each other begin to worship a new god: the innocent child, for whom they will make appropriate sacrifices.

“Gone Baby Gone” presents pictures and sounds of human suffering without showing puddles of blood in every other scene. I involuntarily shook my head over the apparent hopelessness of despair and addiction–the twin plagues of burnt out classes in an atmosphere of commercial blare.

Angie’s relationship with Patrick, however, depends on honesty. In their detectives’ world of dubious moral crevices, they could easily lose their own ethical center. Her grip on reality checks his dangerous impulses. He needs her to stay whole. But between them, almost buried, there exists an ethical gap. Patrick faces the dilemma: what’s correct and what’s humane?

After a shootout at a house where a child molester has just murdered a small boy, Patrick reflects. He had held his gun to the pervert’s head, deciding: Should he have this miserable freak arrested? Then wait until he gets out of prison to repeat his crime, or save the system money and the life of some kid in the future?

Patrick makes his decision and then regrets it. He does not buy the logic of the cop, Remy (Ed Harris), who admits to having planted evidence on bad guys to insure their conviction. Patrick — his Catholic education?–cringes at such “situational ethics.” In the “good old days” nonconformists to church rules made you a heretic–at best. In the 21st Century, secular culture brands such absolutists as hopelessly reactionary or downright dysfunctional.

Since he does not trust the instincts of Angie, who reacts properly when she risks her life to save the child earlier in the film, Patrick faces yet another moral dilemma. Does a child belong with its mother, even if she’s a crack whore? Or has “Nature” become corrupted by malodorous customs in which rigid rules make little sense? Conservatism confronts Liberalism. Old religion vies with secular humanism. The absolutes of the past versus the changing and rapidly decomposing world! Who and what will stop the erosion other than rigid insistence on the venerable values of centuries, the ones Patrick learned in church?

Patrick goes by the book. His conscience costs him his relationship. The film’s last shot provides a chilling reminder for all who seek to settle ethical questions without collective responsibility. The most moral people in the sick society accept responsibility for their behavior and take the consequences, no matter how unpleasant. The lingering final shot presents the audience with an American dilemma, one that begs for a social order where people will not have to make such catastrophic personal decisions, where good deeds will not collide with the vestigial rules of church and state.

SAUL LANDAU’s new book, BUSH AND BOTOX WORLD, with a foreword by Gore Vidal, is now available from Counterpunch Press. His new film, WE DON’T PLAY GOLF HERE, is available on DVD from






SAUL LANDAU’s A BUSH AND BOTOX WORLD was published by CounterPunch / AK Press.