October 23, 2003

Mystic River

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Unforgiven was a great film, not for what it showed, but rather for what it did not. It was a practice in minimalism by director and star Clint Eastwood, showing how a mere gesture or even a rolling western landscape could speak for the suffering of a man’s soul. With Mystic River, Eastwood has returned to a similar style of filmmaking, relying not on flashy camera work or schizophrenic editing, but rather showing how one expression, or one sustained camera shot can unearth a world of emotion.

The film centers around three men: Jimmy (Sean Penn), an ex-con trying to turn his life around; Dave (Tim Robbins), a man haunted by a childhood trauma; and Sean (Kevin Bacon), a homicide detective caught in a broken marriage. All were childhood friends, but their lives were drastically altered when two pedophiles posing as police officers confronted the boys and took Dave away. As they aged, their friendships grew further apart. It is by tragic circumstance that the three are brought back together, when Jimmy’s nineteen year old daughter Katie is found murdered.

After Dave comes home in a frightened delirium on the night that Katie is murdered, covered in someone else’s blood, Sean and his partner (Laurence Fishburne) begin to circle around Dave as the prime suspect. Dave’s wife Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden) becomes fearfully suspicious, unable to support him as he begins to lose his frail hold on reality. At the same time, Jimmy swears vengeance for his daughter, and his wife (Laura Linney) shows frightening loyalty to his need for revenge. We see one family falling apart and another being drawn closer.

Shot in gritty, working class neighborhoods in Boston, Eastwood creates a pervasive aura of sadness, a mood that is sometimes overpowering. From the opening nightmare to the morally ambiguous ending, the characters of the film seem trapped in a kind of purgatory of betrayal and grief. This is a tale of crime and punishment, the actual crimes mere preludes to the slow-burning eternities of anguish and recrimation that follow.

Penn once again arrives in a performance of deafening power, portraying a man whose only outlet for the pain he cannot articulate is to let it erupt in violent revenge. What we see is a slow transformation, a man being overtaken by the malignance and violence he had thought long left behind. Bacon has finally returned to a respectable role and is finely nuanced as a man caught between childhood loyalties and his current suspicions. Sorely missing is Linney, who is given a very underdeveloped role and only brief screen time.

But it is Robbins who is must carry the true emotional burden of the film. As Dave, his every expression speaks verses about a life interrupted mid-stream. He is a man haunted, still trapped like the little boy he was within his own consciousness. I cannot say that he pulls this role off flawlessly; at times it looks like he is forcing the emotion on to the screen. But at others he is magnificent, and for being charged with such a difficult role, his performance should be recognized.

Nevertheless, River still leaves something to be desired. There are three stories going on at once here: the crime drama, the human drama, and the revenge drama. Sometimes the connection between all three is difficult to discern, if not very weak. In addition, Eastwood introduces several story lines, but never really develops them, namely, the relationships of Sean and Jimmy to their wives. Just not enough screen time is given to allow these aspects of the film depth.

Also, something that still eludes me is that although it bears the name, the film barely incorporates the actual Mystic River. The river could have been a fantastic visual conceit for the film, but Eastwood unfortunately keeps the images and references to it to a minimum.

To his credit, Eastwood has created an experience that extends well beyond the final credits. This is a film that could have easily drifted into becoming a typical whodunit crime drama, but Eastwood deftly steers it away from that trap, driving it full throttle into a pensive and meditative realm of loss and persistent memory. If anything, this is intensely human filmmaking, an experience all too resonant to be ignored.

Archived article by Zach Jones