The Movie Review: 'Mystic River'

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It's hard to believe, but Mystic River is Clint Eastwood's twenty-fourth feature film as a director. Since his debut behind the camera (he was also in front of it) in Play Misty For Me in 1971, he has directed more movies than either Martin Scorcese or Steven Spielberg. Some are memorable (Unforgiven), some are awful (Absolute Power), and at least one is equal parts each (A Perfect World; if you've seen it, you know which part is which). Mystic River is his most complex and assured effort to date, a near-classic that falters due to an accretion of many small flaws and one large one.

Adapted from the novel by Dennis Lehane, the film, released on video this month, begins with three eleven-year-old boys in working-class Boston: Sean, the good kid; Jimmy, the hard case; and Dave, the unpopular kid trying desperately to fit in. The three boys are writing their names in wet sidewalk cement one day when a car rolls up with two men in it, apparently cops, who take the boys to task for their vandalism. The men put Dave into the car, saying they are taking him to his mother to tell her what he's done. But the men are not cops, and they do not drive Dave to his mother. Rather, they lock him in a basement and abuse him for four days until he escapes. When Dave returns home, everyone recognizes him as "damaged goods." Flash ahead about a quarter of a century. Sean (Kevin Bacon) is now a policeman; Jimmy (Sean Penn) is an ex-con with a wife (Laura Linney) and three daughters; and Dave (Tim Robbins) is still damaged goods, shambling through life with the look of someone who knows that only bad things will ever happen to him. After a late night of drinking, Robbins comes home to his wife (Marcia Gay Harden) covered with someone else's blood, telling her that he fought, and may have killed, a would-be mugger. The next day, the body of Penn's beautiful 19-year-old daughter is found beaten and murdered in a neighborhood park. Thus the three boys are brought together again: Bacon working the case, Penn seeking vengeance, and Robbins, whose behavior grows more and more erratic, gradually emerging as the prime suspect.

The film unfolds as a crime epic in the mold of L.A. Confidential, with Eastwood juggling characters and storylines masterfully. The performances are generally strong (including a delightful uncredited cameo as a liquor store owner by Eli Wallach, the "Ugly" to Clint's "Good" way back when) and the themes--of grief and vengeance, love and betrayal, and past acts that will forever haunt the present--are powerful. But in the end, not powerful enough; or more precisely, maybe too powerful for the film's own good.

As a director, Eastwood has a tendency toward heavy-handedness, particularly in films (e.g., Unforgiven) and scenes that he believes to be Important. He over-solemnizes the material, perhaps out of fear that he'll be considered just another movie star moonlighting as a director. By and large, Eastwood restrains this tendency in Mystic River, but at crucial moments he can't help himself, and the portentousness creeps back in. Immediately following the opening scene in which young Dave is abducted, we cut to Robbins, as the grown-up Dave, walking down the same city block with his own son. Noticing the spot on the sidewalk where the boys had written their names in the cement he stops and stares. But rather than allow Robbins's face to convey the feelings that the sight brings up in him, Eastwood intervenes, flashing back to a shot of the abductors' car, with young Dave in the backseat, pulling away down the block. I don't know whether it's a lack of confidence in his audience or in himself that convinces Eastwood we must be reminded of a scene that took place less than five minutes before; either way, it's disheartening. A more serious stumble occurs in the scene that won Sean Penn his Oscar. As the police examine his daughter's body in the park, Penn breaks through a line of patrolmen, howling like a wounded animal, "Is that my daughter in there?" It is a raw, powerful moment, one that it would have been nice to see unfold further. (What will happen when the rage leaves Penn's body?) But Eastwood seems uncomfortable with this level of emotional intensity, and so quickly extinguishes it with cheap sentiment: The orchestra swells over Penn's cries, and we are treated to an aerial shot of the girl's body that slowly pans upward toward heaven. It's not subtle.

The script, by Brian Helgeland--who did such a masterful job of carving L.A. Confidential out of James Ellroy's sprawling, impossible novel--also disappoints. This adaptation is a much more faithful one, and not to Helgeland's credit. A silly storyline involving Bacon's estranged wife, who calls his cell phone constantly but refuses to speak, is whittled down to the point of meaninglessness but left in the film nonetheless. Thoughts that Lehane places in his characters minds, Helgeland transfers to their mouths, where they come out stilted and absurd. ("What the hell am I going to tell him?" Bacon asks his partner as they examine Penn's daughter. "Hey Jimmy, God said you owed another marker and he came to collect?")

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Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

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