Some manage, but most do not, and River drowns in tedium and cumbersome symbolism as a result. The 73-year-old Eastwood remains a meat-and-potatoes filmmaker. He's not afraid to take chances when selecting material, but his no-nonsense approach regardless of the content dooms this and other projects to a static and mind-numbingly wearisome state.
From a storytelling standpoint, River actually is Eastwood's most ambitious project in years, with multiple subplots growing like weeds in an untended patch. It opens on the streets of a worn-down Boston neighborhood, and cautiously tiptoes through a horrific act that bonds three young ruffians in a pact of anger and fear. Flashing forward 30-odd years, the film catches us up with the boys-turned-men. Naturally they haven't left the neighborhood, though they've all taken completely opposite paths. Dave (Tim Robbins), a husband and father, stumbles and mumbles through life with the awareness of the barstools he frequents. Sean (Kevin Bacon) works as a homicide detective. And Jimmy (Sean Penn), also a father, runs a legitimate alcohol distribution company but barely hides his criminal past or ties to the neighborhood syndicate.
A second tragedy, the murder of Jimmy's oldest daughter Katie (Emmy Rossum), reunites the three in ways they'd care not to discuss. Sean is called on to investigate the crime, and Dave quickly becomes a suspect. Jimmy, meanwhile, craves vengeance and isn't waiting for the police to finger a culprit.
The loss of a child allows Penn the opportunity to reach down into places he doesn't talk about at parties. Eastwood gives his smoldering star plenty of places to emote, from the back room of a funeral home to the typical Irish wake. The actor's brutal meltdown at the scene of his daughter's murder might catch the Academy's eye, but it's the dark places he goes to afterwards that should earn him an Oscar nomination.
The remaining performances reach varying degrees of believability. Bacon distances himself from the pack, but falls short of Penn's heartfelt theatrics. Robbins, however, plays Dave with a homicidal vagueness intended to make him a suspect in our eyes. Lethargic and laughably bad, he's closer in stature and delivery to Frankenstein's monster than he is to a living, breathing human being. His condition is supposed to be a result of that unmentionable childhood incident. Has Dave been like this ever since? If so, what ever did his wife (Marcia Gay Harden) see in him? And why is she so quick to suspect him when Katie turns up dead?
Using the material's inherent grief, River can twist your gut with simple scenes. When Jimmy spots an army of police officers swarming around his daughter's abandoned car, we join him in fearing the worst. But Katie's death, which catapults the narrative forward, also drains Eastwood's picture of it suspenseful energy. From that point on, River slowly trudges through the motions of a tired whodunit, saving its dramatic juices for a blowout finale that never comes.
Here's a spoiler, but a major bone of contention I had with River. Steeped in Boston Catholicism, the film ironically commits a cardinal sin that Eastwood - a veteran of the police genre - should have avoided. When Katie's killer is revealed, it isn't a character we've spent hours dissecting. It's a fourth-tier supporting player we were introduced to briefly in the film's first five minutes and never shown again until the finale. Motives aren't important, and everything we've suffered through cancels out. Miraculously, one crucial investigative act that might've tied up a major loose end earlier on goes ignored until Eastwood feels its time to start wrapping things up. It involves the 911 call, and is a prime example of Helgeland's inability to address the smallest details.
Those who enjoy their drama parceled out in tiny portions with the speed of a snail will find River gripping. The rest of us with a pulse will tire of Eastwood's lumbering execution and transparent techniques that drained Blood Work of life and turned A Perfect World into an imperfect and overlong character study.
Fans of the film will want to check out the three-disc DVD edition of the movie. In addition to a Bacon-Robbins commentary track (what, Penn was too tired?), a second disc offers a number of extras, including a making-of film and a piece by the author of the original novel about his old 'hood. A third disc contains the entire soundtrack of the film on CD. Nice collection.
Cry him a river.
Run time: 138 mins
In Theaters: Wednesday 15th October 2003
Box Office USA: $90.1M
Box Office Worldwide: $90.1M
Distributed by: WB
Production compaines: Warner Bros. Pictures, Village Roadshow Pictures
Contactmusic.com: 2 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 87%
Fresh: 169 Rotten: 25
IMDB: 8.0 / 10
Director: Clint Eastwood
Screenwriter: Brian Helgeland
Starring: Sean Penn as Jimmy Markum, Tim Robbins as Dave Boyle, Kevin Bacon as Sean Devine, Marcia Gay Harden as Celeste Boyle, Kevin Chapman as Val Savage, Tom Guiry as Brendan Harris, Emmy Rossum as Katie Markum, Spencer Treat Clark as Silent Ray Harris, Andrew Mackin as John O'Shea, Adam Nelson as Nick Savage, Robert Wahlberg as Kevin Savage, Jenny O'Hara as Esther Harris, John Doman as Driver, Cameron Bowen as Young Dave, Jason Kelly as Young Jimmy, Connor Paolo as Young Sean, T. Bruce Page as Jimmy's Father, Miles Herter as Sean's Father, Cayden Boyd as Michael Boyle, Tori Davis as Lauren Devine, Jonathan Togo as Pete, Laurence Fishburne as Sergeant Whitey Powers, Laura Linney as Annabeth Markum, Eli Wallach as Mr. Loonie - Liquor Store Owner (uncredited)