Film Reviews: Wednesday, October 15, 2003
Mystic River
Starring Kevin Bacon, Sean Penn, and Tim Robbins. Directed by Clint Eastwood. Written by Brian Helgeland, based on Dennis Lehane’s novel. Rated R.
Roiling on the River

Clint Eastwood hits a career high point with his murder mystery.


The dominant color in Mystic River is gray. There’s literal gray, as cinematographer Tom Stern favors a washed-out look. There’s ethical gray, as the film’s murder mystery plunges the characters into moral ambiguity. And there’s the cast, which is going gray. Kevin Bacon, Sean Penn, and Tim Robbins have been Hollywood stars since their mid-20s, and they’ve all been meltingly handsome in their time. It’s a shock, therefore, to see how old they look in this film; director Clint Eastwood dwells lovingly on their every wrinkle and gray hair. The 73-year-old filmmaker seems to be contemplating the aging of the generation of matinee idols that succeeded him, but that’s not all he’s doing. He’s casting these longtime stars as three guys who have lived in the same Boston neighborhood their whole lives. These characters are fixtures, and our familiarity with the actors portraying them makes us feel as if we know their history. The ruins of their faces are indelible images from this somber, gently disturbing film, which takes place in a world whence beauty and innocence have fled, leaving a fallen paradise behind.

The original sin happens in the film’s opening scene. We see three 11-year-old boys named Jimmy, Sean, and Dave playing on a street in the 1970s. Two child molesters posing as cops drive up and take Dave away, and though Dave later escapes, he isn’t the same afterward. In the present day, another terrible event reunites those three now-grown boys. Jimmy (Penn) is an ex-con turned grocery store owner whose beautiful, vivacious 19-year-old daughter Katie (Emmy Rossum) is brutally murdered one night after she leaves a bar. That same night, Dave (Robbins) comes home from the same bar covered in blood and tells his wife (Marcia Gay Harden) an unconvincing story about fighting off a mugger. Sean (Bacon), a Massachusetts State Police detective, is left to sort out the case. Katie’s death spins her father back to the dark side — Jimmy conducts his own investigation with the help of his criminal brothers-in-law, looking to exact vengeance.

Other film critics have blown smoke about how this movie (faithfully adapted by Brian Helgeland from Dennis Lehane’s novel) represents Clint Eastwood’s artistic growth — the actor who played Dirty Harry is now making a film that condemns vigilante justice. Eastwood isn’t growing; with rubbish such as True Crime and Blood Work to his name in recent years, he remains a model of inconsistency. Robert Altman is the only other major American filmmaker whose work is as hit-or-miss.

We don’t have to fool ourselves about Eastwood’s progress to appreciate Mystic River for what it is: the best movie he has ever directed. Early on, when Katie first goes missing, he uses a series of fade-outs to build the tension. It leads to the discovery of her lifeless body lying in a park, and what makes the scene so horrible is the cold reality of her death rather than the violence done to her. Eastwood frames the scene with an overhead shot (that he repeats shortly afterward with Jimmy’s screaming reaction to his daughter’s death), and he makes the murder feel like a crime against humanity.

From there, the movie proceeds deliberately but with a gathering sense of inexorable doom, climaxing in a long scene that matches the earlier one in subtlety and horror, in which Jimmy and his brothers-in-law corner Dave in a diner booth. The director’s stark sense of drama (aided by authentic Boston locations and a spare background score composed by Eastwood himself) gives this small-scale film an almost biblical power. He evokes a world in which both the murder and the long-ago molestation are cosmic disruptions so traumatic that neither Sean’s law enforcement powers nor Jimmy’s crusade for personal vengeance are enough to set them right. I wish the movie had a more emotional catharsis than Jimmy’s wife justifying murder as a God-given right. (Laura Linney delivers the monologue, and it’ll chill you to the depths of your soul.) Nevertheless, it fits with the movie’s uncommonly unified mood.

The film’s cast is its true glory. Eastwood’s slow pacing gives them room to work, and the three stars are all at the top of their game or close to it. In possibly the greatest performance of his career, Penn is wrenching in his depiction of Jimmy’s grief and rage, yet he’s equally locked in on his character’s fundamental evil. Robbins looks frail most of the time, which makes it all the scarier when he occasionally throws a murderous glance at his wife or the cops. With the least showy of the three major roles, Bacon makes Sean a coolly professional counterweight to Jimmy and Dave, and he’s affecting in his one-sided phone conversations with his ex-wife. Laurence Fishburne provides sharpness and some much-needed comic relief as Sean’s partner.

Hollywood is the world’s greatest repository of acting talent, but too often its movies fail to fully capitalize on that. The dark, icy Mystic River is a film that we can point to and say, “This is what American acting is all about.”

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