Mystic River

Mystic River

USA, 2003. Rated R. 137 minutes.

Cast: Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon, Laurence Fishburne, Marcia Gay Harden, Laura Linney, Kevin Chapman, Adam Nelson, Emmy Rossum, Cameron Bowen, Spencer Treat Clark, Eli Wallach (uncredited)
Writer: Brian Helgeland, based on the novel by Dennis Lehane
Original Music: Clint Eastwood, Lennie Niehaus
Cinematography: Tom Stern
Producers: Clint Eastwood, Judie Hoyt, Robert Lorenz
Director: Clint Eastwood


Grade: A- Review by Carlo Cavagna

"We bury our sins; we wash them clean"

Mystic River tagline

L eaving aside the mixed metaphor, the tagline brings to mind enduring themes of justice, retribution, and damnation. Like many of director Clint Eastwood's best pictures (Unforgiven, High Plains Drifter), Mystic River has a timeless, Old Testament quality. Because of his understated style and minimalist approach, Eastwood is the right man for this kind of material. He has served up some mediocre films over the years (The Rookie, Absolute Power), but when he gets his hands on a first-rate story, he knows how to let it breathe.

The trio of childhood friends, Jimmy, Sean, and Dave (played as adults by Sean Penn, Kevin Bacon, and Tim Robbins, respectively) are linked, but not just by their lifelong friendship. Like a Hindu deity, they are almost three aspects of the same Universal Man. They attempt to serve those functions traditionally expected of men by society, acting as patriarchs, protectors, and lovers. However, one of these men has been compromised by a traumatic event, scarring the friendship of all three. As adults, they have followed different paths.

In the film's opening scene, the child Dave is taken away from the others in a car by a molester posing as a police officer. The children's interactions and their reactions to the supposed policeman deftly sketch their personalities. Jimmy, the instigator of their escapades, is the rebellious, defiant one—as an adult, he will make his own rules rather than kow-towing to someone else's. Sean, who opposes Jimmy's idea of going for a joy ride, is the straight, moral one—as an adult, he will enforce society's rules. Dave, who goes along with the prevailing winds, is the weakest of the three, the rule-follower, and the one picked by the perceptive molester to be his victim. His adult life will be defined by his ability to live within other people's rules.
Laura Linney and Sean Penn
Laura Linney and Sean Penn sit in church in  Mystic River

Jimmy is a powerful man in his neighborhood, a former crime ringleader still commanding the unquestioning loyalty of his wife's brothers Val and Nick Savage (Kevin Chapman and Adam Nelson), even though he has been making an honest living for several years. Sean is on the opposite side of the law, a detective with the Massachusetts State Police assigned to investigate a murder in Jimmy's neighborhood, the victim of which turns out to be Jimmy's daughter Katie (Emmy Rossum of Passionada). In contrast to these strong men, Dave has grown up to be a loner, a haunted, enigmatic man living on the fringes of society, incapable of connecting emotionally with his wife Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden) and child. Instead, like a vampire (one of the film's motifs), he walks the streets at night to get away from his demons. For this and other reasons, Jimmy comes to believe that Dave might be Katie's killer, and Sean's partner Whitey (Laurence Fishburne) also has suspicions.

The men of Mystic River, especially Jimmy, are old-school men. They take justice into their own hands and provide their own law. They create order within their spheres of influence and protect their families at all costs. In one of the film's final scenes, Jimmy's wife Annabeth (Laura Linney), gives a bone-chilling monologue affirming the role Jimmy has chosen for himself, and the idea that a man must do what a man must do—no matter what. For her cousin Celeste, Annabeth has nothing but scorn, because Celeste shares her fears and suspicions with Jimmy, instead of standing by her man—no matter what.

The acting is excellent across the board. Though Mystic River is not ultimately about Jimmy's journey, the film belongs to Penn. Typically, Penn needs a strong director to reign in his instinct to chew the scenery—without a forceful hand, you get Hurlyburly and She's So Lovely. Eastwood, a noted laissez-faire director, seems like a bad choice to direct Penn, but he is also known for refusing to shoot more than two or three takes of any one shot. Perhaps that provided the structure Penn needs. While restrained and internal throughout most of the film, Penn displays both chilling intensity and heart-wrenching grief when it really counts. He should earn yet another Oscar nomination for Mystic River, and it's about time he won one. Penn has often cited Robert De Niro as a strong influence; rarely has it been more apparent than in Mystic River. The performance compares to De Niro's finest work.

Penn outshines Bacon and Robbins without overshadowing them, however. It's not quite right to say that Robbins brings to life the withered, emotionally broken Dave within his tall, gangly frame, because Dave is dead on many levels from the moment he gets into the molester's car as a boy. Let's just say that although it would have been intuitive to cast a less imposing actor, Robbins embodies Dave near-perfectly (it's worth noting that in the book Dave is also a huge guy, as a sort of visual contradiction to his demeanor). As for Bacon, he has flirted with becoming a Serious Actor on many occasions. His steady, assured performance in Mystic River should seal the deal. Fishburne, Linney, and Harden are equally solid in the supporting roles.

Mystic River concerns a murder and the hunt for a killer, but it is not a thriller, at least not in the traditional sense of the word. Certainly, Mystic River has its share of plot coincidences and near-contrivances, but thanks to Eastwood, the film never comes off like it's trying to be clever. Eastwood does not seem particularly concerned with whether you can foresee what comes to pass (you can). Like in an Old Testament tale, there is a sense of inevitability about what happens in Mystic River. That's because the story's developments are emotionally and thematically organic to the film, rather than gratuitous twists designed purely to surprise. Mystic River is not about who-done-what, but, much like In the Bedroom, about why who-done-what, and what that reveals about all of us, as human beings.

Review © October 2003 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images 2003 Warner Bros. All Rights Reserved.

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