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The film begins with private detective Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) narrating about how well he knows his neighborhood in Boston. Then we see Helene McCready (Amy Ryan) very distraught and talking to the media about her abducted four-year-old daughter Amanda. She doesn’t understand why anyone would take her, since she never hurt anybody. Helene’s sister-in-law Beatrice (Amy Madigan) says that they won’t press charges against the kidnappers, and they just want Amanda back. Amanda was kidnapped when Helene tucked her into bed one night and went to a neighbor’s house. Helene says that Amanda also has her doll named Mirabelle with her. Patrick watches the news about the abduction with his girlfriend Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan), who’s also his business partner. Angie doesn’t like hearing about the story, and has Patrick turn off the TV. Early next morning someone knocks on their door. Patrick gets pissed since it’s so early and opens the door to find Helene’s brother Lionel (Titus Welliver) and his wife Beatrice. Patrick lets them inside and gets dressed. He tells them to sit down but they remain standing. They wait for Angie to come out of the shower before they talk about why they’re there. Beatrice asks Patrick if he knows people who won’t talk to the police, and he says that he knows a few. They want to hire Patrick and Angie to augment the investigation. Angie says that the whole police department is looking for Amanda, and they’ll probably find her. Beatrice says that hiring them wouldn’t do any harm, and Patrick agrees. Before they make up their mind, Beatrice wants them to come meet Helene.
On the way to her house, it becomes clear that Angie doesn’t want to become involved, and Patrick says that if she still feels the same way after meeting with Helene, then they won’t do it. They meet Helene, and she’s vulgar to say the least. One of her friends insults Angie, and then Beatrice pulls her and Patrick out into the hallway to talk. She admits that Helene is not a good person or mother, but she and Lionel really care about what happens to Amanda. Lionel also makes mention that Helene is an alcoholic and does cocaine on a regular basis. Beatrice shows them a picture of Amanda, and Angie decides that they will take the case. They go into Amanda’s room and see that it’s very bare and dirty. As they look around, police chief Jack Doyle (Morgan Freeman) walks into the room with several cops. He makes it clear that he doesn’t want them to help, but Patrick says that Beatrice was hoping that they would help on the neighborhood aspect of the investigation. He also says that by law, Doyle has to let them help with the investigation since they were hired and asks for respect. Doyle says that if they don’t catch the suspect within the first day, only 10% of abductions are ever solved. This is the third day of the investigation. Nonetheless, he promises to have some of his men contact them to discuss the investigation.
Patrick and Angie start off by going to the bar that Helene frequents. Patrick asks the bartender questions, but he gets hostile very quickly and tells them to either buy a drink or leave. They buy drinks, and then Patrick recognizes one of his friends at the other end of the bar. They go over to him and his friend reveals that on the night of Amanda’s abduction, Helene wasn’t at a neighbor’s house but was at the bar snorting coke for two hours with someone named Ray. He tries to tell him more, but another guy at the bar gets after him for talking to the private detectives. Patrick and Angie decide to leave, but the front door is closed and locked. The guy tries to start a fight, but Patrick pulls out his pistol and orders them to open the door. The door is unlocked, and when the guy makes a pass at Angie, Patrick pistol whips him in the face. They exit the bar and can’t believe how tense things just got. Somewhere along her Patrick also visits his friend Bubba Rogowski (Slaine) and asks him if he heard anything about who might’ve taken Amanda. Bubba says that he hasn’t heard anything, but once he does he’ll tell him. Later on, they meet detectives Remy Bressant (Ed Harris) and his partner Nick Poole (John Ashton) in a restaurant. The police detectives are surprised by the private detectives, since they were expecting for them to be older. Bressant and Poole tell them that they have three suspects known pedophile Corwin Earle (Matthew Maher), and husband & wife coke addicts Leon Trett (Mark Margolis) and Roberta Trett (Trudi Goodman). Earle lives with the Tretts, but the cops don’t know their location and the abduction wouldn’t be in line with Earle’s previous crimes, since he normally goes for little boys. Patrick tells them about Ray doing coke with Helene the night Amanda was kidnapped, and the detectives get pissed that she lied to them, since they didn’t even know of Ray.
Later on, the police detectives and private detectives go to Helene’s house and ask her about Ray. She doesn’t want to talk, but after they keep pressuring her she finally admits to doing coke with Ray the night of the abduction. She also says that her and Ray ripped off a drug dealer named Cheese out of $130,000 dollars. Helene was a drug runner for Cheese, and then one day some cops raided the buyers after they dropped off the drugs and got the money. Helene and Ray decided to keep the money, and figured that Cheese would think that the money was also taken by the cops. The cops ask her where the money is right now, and she tells them that it’s at Ray’s house. Bressant makes Helene ride with Patrick and Angie since she disgusts him. On the way to Ray’s, Patrick tells Helene that he remembers her from high school and they talk about an old boyfriend of hers. Angie voices her disdain for her parenting, since Helene brought Amanda with her when she ran drugs for Cheese. They arrive at Ray’s house and they find that Ray has been tied to a chair, beaten with a pipe, and shot in the chest. Helene sees his corpse and gets upset. She also mentioned that she buried the money in Ray’s backyard when he passed out that night. The cops figure that Cheese found out about Helene and Ray ripping him off, so he came to Ray’s looking for the money. Cheese tried to beat the information out of him, but since Ray didn’t know where the money was he killed him. Bressant, Poole, Patrick, and Angie find the bag of money in the backyard. They decide not to tell anyone about the money, because if they hand it over to the police then there’s a chance that Cheese will retaliate by killing Amanda. For now, they will hold onto the money until they can make a deal with Cheese. Patrick drives Helene home, and she grows terrified thinking about Amanda. She makes Patrick promise to bring her home.
Patrick, Angie, Bressant, and Poole go to Cheese’s pool hall. Bressant and Poole want to go in by themselves, but Patrick says that he knows Cheese’s brother and it would be better if he goes in with Angie while they wait outside. The detectives let them enter by themselves and wait outside. Patrick and Angie meet with Cheese (Edi Gathegi) and his brother Chris (Jimmy LeBlanc). Patrick tells Cheese about finding Ray’s corpse, but he maintains that he doesn’t know anything about that. He tells Cheese that he knows about Helene and Ray ripping him off, and he demands for him to give up Amanda. Cheese pulls out his pistol and forces Patrick and Angie to lift up their shirts. They lift up their shirts to show that they are not wearing wires, and Cheese says that he doesn’t have anything to do with Amanda. Patrick says that they’ll leave, but if he finds out that he’s lying then he’s going to use Cheese’s money to bribe cops to come after him and tell everyone he knows that he’s a confidential informant and a rat. He also threatens to kill him if he ever disrespects Angie again. Cheese counters by saying that if he sees him again, he’ll kill him. Patrick and Angie leave the pool hall and talk to the detectives outside. They tell them that it didn’t go down as smooth as they thought, and Bressant gets upset since Patrick said that he knew them. He says that it figures too, since half the people he knows are degenerates and Patrick tells him that the other half he knows is cops. He tells him to not blame him, but Bressant says that if Amanda turns if dead he won’t have to, since Patrick will be full of guilt.
The next morning, Bressant calls Patrick and tells him to come to the police station. Cheese called him and set up a meeting to exchange the girl for the money that night. Patrick sees that Cheese has left a blanket belonging to Amanda in his mailbox, along with a note. When Patrick and Angie arrive at the station, they see that Doyle has learned about them coordinating the ransom on their own, which is against the law. Since they have done this behind his back, he too could also go down for it. Bressant tells him that he doesn’t need to be involved, but Doyle maintains that he does. Doyle asks Patrick to read out loud the transcript of a recorded phone conversation between Cheese and Bressant. It basically spouts out a bunch of obscenities and says he’ll kill the girl if they mess with him. The note Patrick was sent has instructions for the drop. Bressant, Poole, Patrick, and Angie are to meet him at a river that night. Patrick and Angie are to be on one side of the water while Bressant and Poole are to be on the opposite side. Cheese will then release Amanda to Patrick in exchange for the money. Angie says that maybe they should tell the other cops about it, but Doyle tells them to remain quiet about the situation. He is haunted by the murder of his own child, who was killed less than a block away from his house. He vowed to stop that from happening to another parent, and to keep them from experiencing what he went through with the death of his child. If they can get Amanda back this way, then they’ll do it and just say that they found her in a bush or something. Doyle gives them the go-ahead to make the deal that night.
Patrick and Angie drive out to the meet early and wonder why Cheese would make them meet all the way out there. Come nightfall, Bressant tells Patrick to call him via radio once he has Amanda. Bressant and Poole head off to the other side of the river while Patrick and Angie climb up to where they’re supposed to be. As they wait, Patrick wonders how Amanda is going to get up there when suddenly gunshots erupt from Bressant’s side of the river. Patrick and Angie run over there and find that Cheese has been shot & killed. Bressant and Poole tell them that something fell into the water. They see Amanda’s doll in the water and realize that Amanda fell from the cliff, and so Angie jumps off the cliff into the water. She searches around but can only find Amanda’s doll Mirabelle. Angie is taken to the hospital for hurting her leg in the fall, and the cops assume that Amanda drowned since they never found her body. Helene, Beatrice, and Lionel had a funeral for Amanda, but had to return the casket at the end of the day because they couldn’t afford it. Doyle took responsibility for the deal gone bad, and was forced to retire (though he only got to keep half his pension). Cheese’s brother Chris was gunned down in an attempted robbery. Patrick tried to move on after the investigation but then something got his attention. Some time afterwards, there was a news report about a seven-year-old boy being abducted from a neighboring town, who was wearing a religious necklace when he was kidnapped. He didn’t think much of it and went to the bar to drink when Bubba came to see him. He told him that they’re going for a ride. Bubba drives Patrick to an old grimy house that has boarded windows.
Bubba says that he found out where the three original suspects are. He’s selling coke to the Tretts, and while they’re inside the house they can snoop around and see if they had anything to do with Amanda. They walk up to the front door and Leon answers. He tries to pay Bubba through the door, but Bubba tells him to let them in so that they can do the deal inside. Leon lets them in and they all go into the kitchen. Leon hands Bubba a wad of cash, and he has Patrick count it while he lets Leon have a taste of the coke. Roberta walks in and gets angry that Leon got the coke and didn’t tell her, but he says that he just got it. As Patrick counts the money, Bubba slowly snoops around the house. Roberta gets suspicious and tells him to stop moving around. Bubba ignores her and is about to walk up the stairs when Roberta aims a gun at him. He’s not fazed and tells Patrick to kill her, since he has drawn his gun on her. Earle opens a door upstairs upon hearing the commotion, but Roberta tells him to go back inside his room. Before he does, Patrick sees that Earle is wearing the abducted boy’s necklace around his wrist. She then asks for Bubba to hand over the remaining coke, and he spills the rest on the floor. As Roberta and Leon snort it off the floor, Patrick and Bubba leave. Later on, Patrick tells Bressant and Poole about the location of the house and Earle wearing the kidnapped kid’s necklace. They meet later that night in front of the house. Back-up will be arriving in a little while, but Bressant and Poole decide to raid the house before then. They have Patrick wait outside.
Bressant goes to the back door while Poole goes to the front. Before he can open the door though, Poole is shot three times in the neck. Patrick rushes over and tries to help him, but blood gushes out from his wounds. He hears Bressant firing his shotgun, and then Patrick calls 911 to report an officer down. Patrick is almost shot and so he takes cover. Patrick fires a couple of shots in front of the house, and then enters through the front door. He finds Leon’s corpse in the front of the house, and sees that he was shot in the back. Patrick then continues to search the house when Roberta tries to shoot him in the kitchen. Patrick panics and runs upstairs with Roberta chasing after him. He goes into the upstairs room and locks the door. He proceeds inside the dark room and finds Earle crouching against the door of the bathroom. He tells Patrick that it was an accident. Patrick enters the bathroom and finds a very bloody pair of underwear in the sink. He then looks into the bathtub and finds the corpse of the abducted seven-year-old boy. Patrick vomits upon seeing the bloody body of the boy. He then walks to Earle and shoots him in the back of the head. When he opens the door, he sees that Bressant has also killed Roberta. Patrick is questioned about what happened by the cops, and Poole is taken to the hospital. Angie meets Patrick at the hospital and asks him if he’s okay. She tells him that she’s proud of him for killing Earle. He tells her that he’ll go home later, and she says that she’ll wait up for him.
Patrick goes outside and sees that Bressant is drinking by himself in front of the hospital. He lets Patrick take a swig of the alcohol, and he also tells him that he did well in blowing Earle’s brains out. Even though he was a pedophile and child killer, Patrick still can’t help but feel shame about killing him. Bressant says that he has zero sympathy for pedophiles, abusers, and kid killers, and that they all deserve to be killed. He then tells Patrick about how one time he planted drugs on a suspect. He and Poole were called to a house by their informant Ray, and when they raided it they found that the house was a dump. They searched the house but couldn’t find anything. He then walked into the kid’s room, and he saw that it was spotless. The kid was holding onto his video game console for dear life, and kept on trying to tell him that he’s learned his multiplication tables. His parent was a scumbag who abused his kid, and here he just wanted to tell someone what he’s learned. Bressant planted heroin in the house and sent the parent to prison. The kid now has a better life because he planted drugs at the scene. Patrick goes home to Angie, and then he realizes something. When he first told Bressant about Ray, he said that he didn’t know him, but then he just told him tonight that he used to be his informer. He can’t understand why Bressant would lie to him, and Angie tells him to drop it.
Poole dies from his wounds and is given a policeman’s funeral. While walking in the procession, a cop comes up to Patrick and shakes his hand for killing Earle. After the funeral, Patrick walks with Angie when he sees Bressant walking with his wife. They all walk together, and Patrick tells him that he knows he lied to him. Bressant tells him to forget about the other night and leaves it at that. As he leaves, Patrick spots Devin (Michael K. Williams), a cop that he knows. He tells him to meet him for lunch later that day. At the restaurant, Patrick tells Devin that he can’t think of one reason big enough for Bressant to lie to him and small enough not to matter. He asks if Bressant is dirty, and Devin laughs it off. Patrick tells him that he knows Bressant planted evidence once, and then Devin tells him that he better think long and hard before he starts to investigate corruption in the police department. Devin says that Bressant actually knew about Cheese being ripped off two weeks before Cheese did. He also mentions that Bressant is married to a former prostitute, and that Doyle was his mentor and got him situated when Bressant moved from Louisiana to Boston. Patrick remembers that when Beatrice was trying to get him to take the case, Lionel kept on trying to hold her back and keep her quiet. He figures that he had a part in the abduction and calls him, telling him to meet at a bar. Lionel calls Bressant and tells him about Patrick wanting to meet him. Bressant tells him to keep his mouth shut or he’s his enemy. He says that where he comes from, a person dies with their secrets.
Patrick and Angie meet Lionel at the bar, and they get him to confess that he knew Bressant before Amanda’s investigation. Lionel drinks alcohol after staying sober for so long, and he reveals what happened. He was tucking in Amanda one night when Helene and Ray walked in and talked about how they ripped off Cheese. They didn’t know Lionel was there, and he told Bressant about it. They then planned to keep the money for themselves, since it came from a drug dealer. Lionel gave Amanda to Bressant so that he could keep an eye on her. While Patrick and Angie were waiting at the river for Amanda, Cheese and Chris were on the other side meeting with Poole and Bressant. Lionel and Amanda were also there. They got Chris to kill Cheese, and Amanda got scared because of the shooting and accidentally fell off the cliff. Angie can’t believe that Lionel would do that to his own niece, but he tells her that she meant more to him than she did to Helene. He just thought that the girl would be returned and he would get to split Cheese’s money with Bressant. Suddenly, a masked man bursts into the bar and orders the bartender to open the safe. The masked man sees Lionel and asks him if he talked while aiming his shotgun at him. Lionel and Patrick can tell that Bressant is the masked man, and Patrick tells him that Lionel confessed to everything. Before he can kill Lionel, Bressant is shot twice through the back by the bartender, and Patrick tackles him against the bar. Bressant hits him with his shotgun and then runs out of the bar.
Patrick gets up and runs out of the bar, but can’t tell which way Bressant went. He then spots his mask on the ground, and follows his blood trail to a building. He runs up the stairs and winds up on the roof. Patrick cautiously moves around and sees Bressant sitting down. He orders him to drop his gun, and so Bressant throws it away. Patrick sees that Bressant is bleeding profusely from his wounds. Bressant winds up dying, and Patrick is questioned about his death by the police. He gets frustrated when he tells them everything and they keep him in custody. They tell him that the death of a cop is never taken lightly, and Patrick is saying that Bressant was corrupt. He tells the cops about the recorded phone call on Bressant’s phone and the transcript of it. Then the cops tell him that their calls are not recorded, or transcribed. Next, we see Patrick and Angie driving out to a forest. Angie tells Patrick that this is the kind of thing that he wants to be sure of before he does it, and asks him if he’s sure. Patrick tells her no, and asks if she’s going to come with him. She tells him no and waits by the car. As Patrick walks to Doyle’s house, he thinks about what happened that night at the river.
Patrick gets to Doyle’s house, where he sees that he’s packing up his belongings. He tells Doyle that Bressant is dead, and he says that he already knew. Patrick is then shocked to see Amanda opening the front door and running outside to hug Doyle. He sends her back inside and then tells Patrick about what really happened. Lionel knew that Helene was a coke addict, an alcoholic, and a horrible mother. He gave Amanda to Doyle so that she could have a better life with a better family. Bressant and Poole were part of it. They paid Chris to kill Cheese at the river, and then later on they killed Chris and made it look like a robbery gone bad. Also, at the river Poole threw Mirabelle into the water and threw in a rock to make it sound like Amanda fell in. Everybody thought that she was dead but she was really being raised by Doyle and his wife. Patrick says that he’s going to call the police as soon as he leaves, but Doyle urges him not to. If he calls the authorities, Amanda will be brought back to her uncaring mother and will probably end up becoming just like Helene one day. The day might come when Amanda will ask Patrick why he called the police and took her away from a caring family. Patrick tells Doyle that if he just leaves and decides not to tell anyone about it, there might come the day when Amanda will ask him why he didn’t send her back to her mother, which he promised to do, and why he just left her there with these strange people who kidnapped her. Doyle still urges him to think about it, and Patrick leaves. He walks back to the car and Angie says that she saw Amanda too. She tells him to let Doyle raise her, since she’ll be guaranteed to be taken care of by people who will give her a good upbringing. Patrick can’t believe that she sides with Doyle, and she says that she will hate him if he calls the cops. Patrick thus faces a huge dilemma.
The next scene shows that Patrick wound up calling the cops. Doyle was arrested, and Amanda had to be forcibly taken from Doyle’s wife because she wouldn’t let her go. After spending some time with child services, Amanda was deemed fit to go back to living with Helene. A lot of reporters gathered in front of her house as she was reunited with Amanda. Bressant was given a small funeral and Angie decided to leave Patrick. Next, Patrick goes to visit Helene, who’s happy to see him. She tells him that she has forbidden Beatrice from seeing Amanda, and Lionel was arrested for his involvement. She’s getting ready for a date, and asks Patrick how she looks. He tells her that she looks great, and she asks him about Angie. He tells her that she left him, and she says that it’s a shame. Patrick asks if she has a babysitter for Amanda, and it becomes clear that she doesn’t have a planned babysitter. She then asks Patrick if he wouldn’t mind babysitting her, and he agrees to do it. Helene leaves for her date, and Patrick sits down next to Amanda while she watches TV. He sees that she is playing with her doll and asks “is that Mirabelle?”, but Amanda corrects him by telling him that her doll’s name is Annabelle, showing that Helene didn’t even know the name of her favorite doll. The film ends with Patrick and Amanda watching TV, with Patrick probably wondering if he really made the right decision.
*CUT TO THE CHASE*
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Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) discovers that the missing girl has been taken by Police chief Jack Doyle (Morgan Freeman), who is raising her with his wife. The child was taken in a conspiracy involving Doyle and the child's uncle. Kenzie debates with his partner/girlfriend Angela Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan) about whether to alert the authorities to this. Against her wishes, he does so and the child is returned to her mother. As a result, she ends their relationship and partnership.
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