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Mystic River (2003) Print E-mail
Wednesday, 08 October 2003
Clint Eastwood's moody, dark movie of Dennis Lehane's novel "Mystic River" is one of his best films as a director, topped only by "Unforgiven." This new film examines the result of a childhood trauma on three boyhood friends, and the ever-widening circles of other people it affects, directly and indirectly. It's a very somber film, shot in cold, steely colors, focused clearly on the story and the characters. As usual, Eastwood does not engage in any directorial flourishes, but instead concentrates on telling a tale, and about those involved. The well-crafted script is by Brian Helgeland.

Sean, Jimmy and Dave are friends, about 12, living in the same suburb in south Boston, near the Mystic River. Like everyone else in the neighborhood, they're Irish Catholic, from the lower economic class. While the boys are playing stick hockey in the street, engaging in minor vandalism, a car pulls to a halt; a man gets out, identifies himself as a cop, and scolds the boys. He insists that Dave get in the car with him and his companion, and the other two, confused and forlorn, watch the car drive away. In wet cement on the sidewalk are their names: Jimmy, Sean and Da- He was interrupted by the newcomer before he could finish his name. His life remains as unfinished as his cement signature.

Dave is held captive in a basement for four days, used as the sexual slave of the two men. (Who never reappear in the story -- nor do they need to; the damage has been done.) Finally, he escapes, but as he later tells his wife, "I don't know who came out of that basement, but it sure as hell wasn't Dave."

We learn that this event was traumatic enough that the boys drifted apart. Over the following years, Jimmy turned to petty crime, then married, had a daughter, Katie, and opened a grocery store. But an accomplice lied to the police, and Jimmy (Sean Penn) served two years in prison, during which time his wife died of cancer. He's still something of an authority figure in the neighborhood, and consorts with outright criminals like the Savage Brothers, but he's stayed away from active involvement in crime.

He has remarried, to Annabeth (Laura Linney), and has fathered two more daughters, but Katie (Emmy Rossum), now 18 is the light of his life.

Dave (Tim Robbins) has also married, to Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden), and is the father of a devoted young son (Cayden Boyd). But Dave was so shaken by that long-ago sexual abuse that he's never quite reassembled his life. He works at menial jobs, and drifts through life, a sad, shambling figure.
Sean (Kevin Bacon) is the only one of the friends to make it out of the neighborhood. He's a Boston police detective partnered with Whitey Powers (Laurence Fishburne), but disturbed by his wife having recently left him. (This results in one of the few stumbles in the script: Sean's wife frequently calls him, but never speaks. Eastwood doesn't show us the actress' face, a pointless, distracting device.)

On the day of the confirmation of one of his younger daughters, Jimmy is nearly destroyed: Katie is found murdered, shot to death after fleeing assailants in a local park. Sean and Whitey are assigned to the case. Sean and Jimmy have rarely talked over the years, but there is still an unspoken bond between them -- which includes Dave as well.

But on the night of Katie's murder, a shaken Dave returned home with blood on his hands. He tells his distraught wife that he was attacked by a mugger, and maybe killed the assailant in self defense. But his story sounds hollow, and Celeste begins to doubt him.

Jimmy becomes impatient with the progress of the police investigation, and gradually decides to take events into his own hands. Dave and Jimmy begin to renew their friendship, but then Jimmy begins to suspect that Dave knows more than he's admitting about Katie's murder....

Eastwood presents this potentially sensational material in a cool, steady manner, provided beautiful but spare emphasis by his own score. Everything seems to be taking place in late afternoon on chilly but not wintry days. The mood verges on but never collapses into oppressive, though you won't be whistling the title song on the way out. It's a deeply serious drama as well as an achingly authentic view of a subclass in Boston society. Shot on location, the film at times seems almost documentary in tone, but documentaries rarely look this handsome.

And then there's the acting. This is the best cast Eastwood has ever worked with -- in fact, other than for "Space Cowboys," he's rarely dealt with stars other than himself. And of course the cast here consists of notably good actors, not just stars. Partly because of their positions in the story, the two most notable performances are by Sean Penn and Tim Robbins.

Penn's Jimmy is a knot of bitter threads from the past, threads he chooses to ignore rather than leave behind. But he's full of tension; his horrified, violent outburst when he learns of Katie's death, struggling against cops trying to hold him back, is so shocking and powerful it's hard to watch. It's impossible to tell how he or the other two would have come out of childhood without the fact of Dave's abduction, but Jimmy has overtly never forgotten it. He occasionally wonders what things would be like if it had been him rather than Dave who'd been kidnapped. To a degree, it's as if he's waited his entire life for some dreadful event -- and now it has arrived.

With his usual, unformed-looking face, Robbins has always played highly contrasting roles -- it's hard to find two of his performances that are similar; even when he doesn't give a remarkable performance, he's versatile and intelligent. Dave is yet another departure for Robbins, who doesn't even look like himself, although he's not wearing any unusual makeup. Dave was changed by the abduction, but he has never regained a finished form.

Sean is the most normal of the three, and the only one to have fled the neighborhood (which, perhaps, the others should also have done). But he's as incomplete as they are; his only close relationship is with his partner Whitey who, as a black man, definitely is from another area. (Fishburne does a very slight but expert accent.) Again, like the other two, it's as if he's waited his entire life for an answer, a response, to what happened 25 years before.

The women involved are very different. Annabeth, again from the neighborhood, is a tough survivor, totally devoted to her husband and daughters. There is nothing at all she could learn about Jimmy that would change her love of him -- and at the end, this seems to be as much a weakness as strength. It's unusual to see Linney in such a dark and dramatic film; even her non-comedies have tended to be somewhat lightweight. But she is very good here.

Harden is even better. Celeste loves Dave, but she also realizes she doesn't know him as well as she wishes she did. His arrival with bloody hands and an incoherent story troubles her deeply; she doesn't have the kind of all-encompassing loyalty that Annabeth has, and as the story progresses, she is gradually being torn apart.

As usual with Eastwood, the film is a splendid example of Hollywood studio filmmaking. The photography by Tom Stern, the production design by the great Henry Bumstead and Eastwood's own score are great assets to the disturbing film. The sound (mixer, Walt Martin, editor Alan Robert Murray) is especially good; it's clean and crisp, but also somehow folded in on itself -- the sound seems to become a part of this highly localized society.

The only serious failing of "Mystic River" is that it's hard to identify with the characters; each is so troubled, so dark that they remain at arm's length. But this is as intelligent and well-crafted as Hollywood films get; if you accept the fact that it is a disturbing film offering little comfort to characters or audience, it is very much worth seeing.

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