Clint Eastwood is a uniquely self-possessed director in the face of short-attention-span modern Hollywood. He isn't afraid to take his time telling a story, letting it breathe like a good wine and thereby making it feel more like life than a movie, as the winds of emotions and atmosphere blow through each scene.
His more profound dramas aren't just set in a place and time -- they take you there. This is true of the cruel, muddy underbelly of the Old West in "Unforgiven," it's true of the sleepy, humid, esoteric mint-julep charm of Savannah in "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil," and it's true of the downtrodden, blue-hued, 24-hour dusk of South Boston -- and the psychological wreckage of the characters therein -- in his tragic new mystery "Mystic River."
The story is of three distant childhood friends whose lives collide back together, after 25 years, with the murder of one man's daughter. But that murder doesn't come in the opening scene or even in the opening reel. Eastwood and screenwriter Brian Helgeland ("L.A. Confidential," and Eastwood's "Blood Work"), who adapted a novel by Dennis Lehane, first linger in the lives and street-stickball memories of Jimmy (Sean Penn), a bottled-up ex-con fiercely devoted to his family; Sean (Kevin Bacon), an exacting homicide detective; and Dave (Tim Robbins), whose kidnapping by a sexual predator when the boys were young shook their friendship and shaped their lives, leaving Dave an meek, unstable wreck of a man with demons at play in his subconscious.
Having used this build-up of backstory to weave us into the fabric of their lives, "Mystic River" then tears apart that fabric, beginning when Dave comes home at 3 a.m. to his agitated, fretful wife (Marcia Gay Harden), all bloodied and dazed with a story about killing a mugger -- on the same night Jimmy's 19-year-old daughter (Emmy Rossum) is found murdered in a nearby park.
Sean (Bacon), who is emotionally discordant over his own somewhat perfunctory marital problems, returns to the neighborhood as the cop on the case, resolutely pledging swift and thorough justice for the violently distraught Jimmy, but not making much of an attempt at even awkward comfort to his old friend.
As the film follows compelling forensic particulars of the investigation -- and as Sean argues with his shadier partner (Laurence Fishburne) over each other's biases toward particular suspects -- Jimmy's fury becomes personified by a pair of local underworld goons, who conduct their own intimidating inquiries that lead the distraught father conclusion-jumping down a path toward further calamity.
It's Penn's performance as a man whose entire life of precarious stability has been pulled out from under him that stands out as the soul of "Mystic River." He digs so deep for the pain seeping through Jimmy's leathery exterior that it becomes agonizing to lose sympathy for him as he and his lunkhead muscle-men invite disaster with their knee-jerked stupidity, even as the cops gets closer to finding the killer.
Harden (Oscar winner for 2000's "Pollock") is the film's other standout in a subtly sensational turn of timid devotion which gives way to a legitimate fear that perhaps her increasingly erratic husband did kill the girl -- and that she might be next if he snaps. Laura Linney is also memorable as resilient Jimmy's wife who turns rather chillingly protective when she sees the potential for her family to unravel.
But "Mystic River" doesn't always rise to match the exemplary efforts of its expressive director and better stars. Robbins oversells his characters' psychosis with a touch of jowly dim-wittedness that he doesn't wear well (and Eastwood doesn't help by illustrating that psychosis with frequent, rather uninspired flashbacks). The performances of a couple kids in the cast -- Tom Guiry as the dead girl's secret boyfriend (and possible missing link in the mystery), and Spencer Treat Clark as the boyfriend's clingy, mute younger brother -- lack the kind of dimension we should expect from characters in an Eastwood drama.
The film is good enough, however, to forgive most of its problems, save one: It ends without truly completing a narrative or emotional arc. That some questions are left unanswered -- like why there's no mention of DNA evidence that should be a major turning point in the plot -- isn't the problem, but rather that the more important of those questions never should have arisen in the first place.
To avoid spoilers, I cannot be more specific, except to say that a lack of demonstrable consequences -- real or psychological -- for some egregious actions leaves the film feeling as if it has no ending at all.
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: 3 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 87%
Fresh: 169 Rotten: 25
IMDB: 8.0 / 10
Director: Clint Eastwood
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)
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