Mystic River (United States, 2003)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

With Mystic River, Clint Eastwood has rebounded nicely from the failure of his mediocre previous effort, Blood Work. Absent from the screen but behind the camera for the first time since Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Eastwood concentrates all of his efforts on producing and directing, and the result is the Hollywood icon's best effort in nearly a decade. The script, written by Brian Helgeland, remains reasonably faithful to Dennis Lehane's novel. This is a powerful tale of crime, guilt, and punishment - a drama that incorporates elements of whodunit mystery/thrillers and police procedurals with a richly textured three-character play.

Those three characters are Jimmy (Sean Penn), Sean (Kevin Bacon), and Dave (Tim Robbins). When we first meet them in a quiet Boston suburb, they are kids playing street hockey. A car drives up, and a gruff man gets out and identifies himself as a cop. After intimidating them (they had been "defacing" public property by scrawling their names in wet cement), he forces Dave to get into the car, then drives off. As it turns out, the man is a pedophile, not a cop, and Dave is not seen for four days, after he escapes from his abductors.

The bulk of the story takes place some 30 years later. Over the years, Jimmy, Sean, and Dave have grown apart. Jimmy, a grocery store owner with a criminal background, is married to his second wife, Annabeth (Laura Linney), and has three daughters. The eldest of these, Katie (Emmy Rossum), is the apple of his eye. Sean, a police detective for the Massachusetts State PD, is estranged from his wife. Dave, who has never fully recovered from his abduction, has a wife, Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden), and a young son.

Then, one night, events bring these three old friends back into each others' spheres. Katie is found murdered, and Sean and his partner, Whitey (Laurence Fishburne), are the investigating officers. One of the chief suspects turns out to be Dave, who returned home late on the night of the murder with blood on his hands and an implausible alibi. Meanwhile, as Sean begins the official investigation, Jimmy makes inquiries on his own. He is determined to find the murderer before the police so that he can mete out his own brand of justice.

It is clear from the beginning that Mystic River has aspirations to be more than a conventional murder mystery. The added layer of complexity arises through the psychological depth of the characters and the importance of their past relationship. Although a gulf of time has separated the lives of these men, that single childhood event has forged a bond nothing can sever. The image of Dave, looking forlornly through the backseat window as he is driven away, will haunt Jimmy and Sean to their dying days.

Mystic River would not be the experience it is without the raw powerhouse performance of Sean Penn, whose grief and rage are so forcefully expressed that they bring tears to the eyes. Eastwood shows us just enough of the tender relationship between Katie and her father to make it genuinely painful when he has to identify her body at the morgue. Penn is justly regarded by many critics as one of America's top actors, and his work in Mystic River will only enhance that reputation. This is the second most effective performance on Penn's resume, following only Dead Man Walking.

Tim Robbins is generally regarded as a better director than an actor, but, given the right role (as in The Shawshank Redemption), he can seem perfectly cast. Dave, whose emotions and (to a degree) personality were neutered in childhood, is such a part. Robbins is consistently low-key and doesn't do much in the way of emoting, and that's precisely what's required in this case. Likewise, Kevin Bacon's approach to Sean is understated, since the character does his best to remain emotionally detached from the situation (as befits a good cop). There are occasional cracks in Sean's fa├žade, and Bacon allows us to catch glimpses of his inner turmoil.

Many times in character-based movies like this, it's the supporting performers who make the difference between a good film and a great one. In this case, Eastwood has chosen his entire cast wisely. The actors filling secondary roles - Laurence Fishburne, Laura Linney, Marcia Gay Harden, and young Tom Guiry (as Katie's secret boyfriend) - all do solid work, taking some of the burden off the top-billed trio.

Mystic River has only one misstep, and that occurs at the conclusion (and is reflective of problems with the book's final pages). Instead of ending cleanly, at the point when everything is in place for the rolling of the credits, the movie drags on for two unfortunate, unnecessary scenes. This superfluous epilogue not only pads the running length, but commits minor character assassination and disallows the possibility of things concluding on a dramatically high note. It is Eastwood and editor Joel Cox's only blunder. (This is the kind of material one would expect to see as an "alternate/rejected ending" on a DVD.)

Getting the tone right for such a complex, genre-crossing story is a tricky thing, but Eastwood masters it. Mystic River is suffused by a slightly ominous, sad atmosphere. There are none of the cheesy shocks one often expects from murder mysteries. One could easily argue that, although plot is important, Eastwood puts a greater emphasis on character. The movie moves from one tragedy to a greater one, and we understand how every event impacts each of the protagonists.

With an intelligent, insightful screenplay and a riveting key performance, Eastwood has combined his cinematic ingredients in a mixture that cries out for Oscar consideration. Mystic River is haunting and melancholy, and the portraits it paints of Jimmy, Dave, and Sean will stay with you after you have left the theater. In a time when the goal of most movies is to offer instant gratification with no aftertaste, this quality should be both valued and praised.

Mystic River (United States, 2003)

Ranked #7 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 2003
Run Time: 2:14
U.S. Release Date: 2003-10-08
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1