In Gone Baby Gone, a child goes missing; in Reservation Road a child is killed. In Into the Wild, a college kid disappears shortly after graduation, and in In the Valley of Elah, a young serviceman disappears after he returns from Iraq.
In all these pictures, parents are left wondering what happened, begging for the return of their children.
It's a demonstrably unfit mom — she's a druggie and a thief — sobbing for the 4-year-old whose kidnapping drives the plot of Gone Baby Gone, a crime drama opening this week. But she could easily stand in for all the rest, and for other guardians in movies this fall.
They worry about a baby who's kidnapped from a hospital (in Eastern Promises) and a young man who commits suicide (in Wristcutters: A Love Story). They're anguished parental figures, desperate to make sense of the senseless — and, like the father who dogs the police investigating the Reservation Road hit-and-run that has killed his son, they're desperate to get someone in authority to listen.
This is not, let's note, the usual stuff of cineplex entertainment, where screenwriters place children in jeopardy simply to give heroes a chance to prove they're heroic. None of these fall films is about heroism. Each is about loss, and with a striking consistency, about holding someone accountable for that loss.
Not just for the death or disappearance, but for the damage done to the family that's been left behind. In In the Valley of Elah, finding a killer occupies the police after a young soldier's death, but in terms of the story, police work takes a back seat to parental recrimination. Grief over a child's death also tears a marriage apart in Reservation Road, leaves parents shattered in Into the Wild, diminishes a whole community in Gone Baby Gone.
Now, it's hard to imagine that anyone in Hollywood expects to make a fortune on this particular message — "Our children are dying; would you like a jumbo popcorn with that?" People have to have a reason to buy tickets, after all, so this message must resonate at present, or it wouldn't be surfacing in so many places.
It's tempting, though probably unfair, to see all of these stories of familial loss as echoes of a nation's losses during an unpopular war — America's children dying, their parents powerless to protect them. That is a subtext in some of the films, but extrapolating it to all of them doesn't really make sense.
What's more likely is that these films reflect broader worries — about the world's complexity, about dangers outside the home, and even sometimes inside it. Children may just be a stand-in. I suspect it's innocence itself that we feel is under siege. Our innocence.