I'm old enough to remember all the phases of Ben Affleck's career. He shot to stardom via the indie scene in the 90s, became a punchline with movies like Reindeer Games and Paycheck, and then sort of faded into a solid character man with movies like State of Play and The Company Men

But the phase that matters most now isn't Batman and it's not the return to Oscar-worthy stardom as he stunningly displayed in The Way Back

It's Ben Affleck the director. 

He came onto the scene with an absolute masterpiece, a movie no one saw coming. It was based on the fourth book in a pulpy series by Dennis Lehane and most people assumed it was a layup genre film. A movie about Boston by a guy who knew he could do Boston. 

Instead, Ben Affleck delivered a somber and questioning crime film that took us on a twisty ride through dangerous neighborhoods while searching for the ultimate truth. What is justice? Are there any happy endings? Does age bring wisdom or cynicism? 

Gone Baby Gone delivered all this and more. Cementing itself as a Sidney Lumet-adjacent masterpiece that thrust Affleck into the limelight as someone we should examine and watch moving forward. 

While his other movies like The Town and Argo garnered more awards and box office, I think Gone Baby Gone represents the most complicated morality and plotting of any of his works. While those other movies are spectacular in their own right, I find that they come up more when people talk about Affleck than his seminal work. 

Today, I want to dig into the elements of Gone Baby Gone that made it so tightly wound and excellent. 

Let's go. 

Gone Baby Gone is a Forgotten Crime Masterpiece 

In 2007, Ben Affleck quietly slipped into the director's chair. Miramax gave him $19 million and he went to work casting his friends and family in a crime thriller based on a Dennis Lehane novel. Gone Baby Gone was the story of two Boston area private investigators who investigate a little girl's kidnapping, which ultimately turns into a crisis both professionally and personally. It pits them against cops, drug addicts, and each other. 

The movie didn't do great at the box office, only taking in $34,612,443. 

But it was a critical success, with Rex Reed of the Observer saying, "Mr. Affleck is laying the foundation, brick by brick, for a promising new career."

And he was. 

But what made this movie so special? 

Sure, DP John Toll's cinematography is great and everyone acting in the movie is stellar, but why was this so good? 

[WARNING: There will be spoilers moving forward.)

The Story 

The screenplay for the movie was based on Denis Lehane novel and written by Aaron Stockard and Ben Affleck. Aside from having common crime movie tropes like detectives, cops, and, well, crime, there was an added personal layer here. Affleck understood the neighborhood. It wasn't this overarching Boston movie where the city was used in a general manner. This was about Dorchester, it was about the forgotten poor. The people the media likes to lift up in a crisis. 

As Roger Ebert put it, "The unspoken assumption is that somewhere a clock is ticking, and the longer the child remains missing, the more likely she will never be found or be found dead. And here are these two kids, skip tracers who have lives and destinies depending on them.

That's when this movie leaves other crime movies behind. 

The trip we go on with Michelle Monaghan and Casey Affleck is one we had never seen since the 70s. Since movies like The Friends of Eddie Coyle and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. We saw a lot of non-actors. In fact, Affleck was known to pull people out of crowds and snag passersby. 

Amy Ryan delivers an all-time great performance as the missing girl's mother. You lose her in the role. It should be studied by actors and directors alike because there's a nuance here in the way Affleck lets her shine, staying wide in scenes and pushing in on her of quiet moments. 

She carries all of our animosity and frustration, allowing us to understand everyone else's point of view in the case. 

Authenticity was key. They shot on location using real people. It gave us a window, not into some sort of Irish neighborhood stereotype, but into the factual interpretation of who would be inside bars and walking the streets in these areas. 

The Twists

When I saw this movie the first thing that shocked me is that halfway through the story the child dies, the exchange is bungled, and our hero couple at the center of the movie breaks up. It's a really dark and complicated message. Failure is at the center here. 

But that's just the tip of the iceberg. 

Because there's still a half a movie lefta movie about answering for failures in the past and present. 

See, clues and bounties we saw dredged up in the first act come calling. And when Casey Affleck's character digs back into them, he finds some glaring holes. Corruption within the police force, a hidden connection between the missing girl's uncle and the lead cop on the job, and a possible cover-up that goes all the way to the head of the task force. 

These turns are things we saw set up in act one but never ever expected to count as clues later. They are perceived as backstory for people but wind up being huge payoffs. Even after they put the clues together, they still get the case wrong, and it's not until the very end of the movie that we know what actually happened. 

When we realize the child is not only alive but loving life, hidden away from her dangerous past, we are not sure what to think. We see the story of an uncle wanting to save a child's life. Police willing to play God. And a grieving mother who was in it more for the publicity than the loss of her child.  

That kind of complex layering is amazing. We see if often attempted but never really executed in this way. 

It works because of the ambiguity at the center. 

Moral Questions 

While the rest is great, we know cinema is an empathy machine. And this crime movie asked so much of our empathy. We start with the idea that a child was taken and there are no clues. This is obviously difficult and tugs at our heartstrings. 

But then we learn it's her aunt and uncle who are the only ones looking because her mother is a drug addict. 

As we pull back the layers here we also begin to question whether or not the return of this child would be better or worse. We want her alive but what kind of life will she get if she returns to Dorchester? 

As the movie progresses and we learn the child has died, our perspective shifts, we, like the characters, want someone to blame. 

And as the twists are executed we grow with the characters. Rooting for Casey Affleck to execute the pedophile involved in the other kidnapping and agreeing with Ed Harris's cop that justice is seldom served. And that people who hurt children need to be punished. 

Or do we agree? Who's to say what neighborhood you can rise out of? And who deserves to have kids and who does not? 

We learn that someone who could be a great mother was born barren, a man who could be a great father had a daughter murdered, and a child who was innocent was stolen. But she wasn't stolen. In fact, the people who took her wanted to make sure her entire life wasn't stolen by her selfish mother. 

Which brings us to the central question in the moviewhat is justice? 

In one of the final scenes, we see Affleck and Morgan Freeman face off. Where is justice? If there's no justice, why take a little kid away from a better life? Why rob a child of a brighter future? 

But there's an inherent hubris and selfishness in their request. This is still a baby taken from its mother. Still, someone who could be damaged by that action, even if taken to a place old men think is better. 

So, do we gather wisdom as we age or cynicism? 

The movie allows you to question both sides. And delivers one of the most powerful final frames as Affleck, hoping he made the right decision, visits the little girl he returned home. He gave up his life and his love for her. Lost his partner and a lot of his friends. 

When he visits he sees the Mom is back to her old ways. He offers to babysit and when he sits on the couch next to the girl he asks her about her toy, a toy central to the investigation. One everyone has been calling 'Mirabelle' per her mother's description. 

We find out that the doll's name is actually Annabelle. A crushing blow. The final proof that life denied to this child was probably the better one. 

These kinds of questions are what make a movie powerful and special. They separate the wheat from the chaff.  It's what helped the film appear on 65 critics' top ten lists of the best films of 2007.

What are your thoughts on the movie? 

Let us know in the comments!

Up Next: Write Your Crime Movie with our Free e-Book

So much of what we're talking about on No Film School when it comes to screenwriting is summarized in our new eBook. It also helps guide you through a 10-week writing plan that will get your script actually finished.