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?")
But the film's central flaw, where errors of direction, writing, and acting intersect, is Robbins's character, Dave. The particular burden of crime stories, at least those that are framed as mysteries, is that their solutions must be neither obvious nor implausible. There are many ways of accomplishing this, from the perfect crimes (and more perfect detectives) of Agatha Christie and her heirs to the forensic expeditions you can now find on television most nights. In Mystic River, the narrative device that enables the mystery is the damaged, unfathomable mind of Dave. Could he have shed his mild manners to brutally murder a young girl? How else to explain the unpersuasive and ever-shifting lies he tells about his actions the night of the murder? What did he do to wind up covered in blood, and why?
Robbins, an actor who can carry himself with eerie, forceful stillness, would seem the perfect casting for lost, haunted Dave. But his Oscar for the role notwithstanding, Robbins never quite finds the thread of the character. He is by turns innocent and malevolent, timid and aggressive, naïve and knowing. And while one can imagine these traits coexisting in a psyche as fractured as Dave's, Robbins never shows us how they fit together. The tough, clever Dave who bullies and outsmarts the police during his interrogation ("He just kicked our asses in there," Bacon laments afterward) comes out of nowhere, in part because the early glimmers of anger and guile he shows in the novel are missing from the film. (In the former, for instance, he characterizes his alleged mugger as "some crackhead nigger psycho"; in the latter, it's cleaned up to "this guy.") Helgeland also omits, except for one vague reference, Lehane's disclosure that Dave has fantasized about molesting boys as he himself was molested--a revelation with profound implications for why he does what he does. And surely there are better ways of showing Dave's internal torment than having him explain it to his son: "Sometimes the man wasn't a man at all," he begins, before launching into what is doubtless the most extended metaphor ever uttered by someone without an MFA. "He was the boy, the boy who escaped from wolves, an animal of the dusk, invisible, silent, living in a world the others never saw, a world of fireflies, unseen except as a flare in the corner of your eye, vanished by the time you turn your head toward it."
Because Dave never really coheres into a recognizable human being, he is laid bare as a plot device. He is the psycho ex machina. (Annoyingly enough, he's not the only one in the film.) Why did he say and do what he did? Because he's crazy. Case closed. Rather than resolve the mystery by revealing the underlying logic of what has transpired, the film declares that there was no underlying logic. Much of the tragedy that took place could have been avoided if poor, damaged Dave had behaved in a way that made even a modicum of sense. By untethering Dave from reality, Mystic River untethers itself, and ultimately floats away.
The Home Movies List:
Five Oscars in Search of a Performance
Michael Caine (The Cider House Rules). Michael Caine has appeared in more than 70 films and this may be among the least convincing performances he's delivered in any of them. If he hadn't been playing a doctor who performs abortions, would Hollywood have paid any attention at all?
Kim Basinger (L.A. Confidential). There seems to be a rule that in films featuring several standout performances the Oscar nomination will go to the biggest star, regardless of merit. (This is also how Tom Cruise was nominated for Magnolia, though in that case they at least had the sense not to let him take home the hardware.) And for the record: Kim Basinger does not look like Veronica Lake, and does not look better than Veronica Lake.
Russell Crowe (Gladiator). Two and a half hours of brooding punctuated by death. The most generous interpretation is that the Academy felt bad for having stiffed him in L.A. Confidential and passed him over in The Insider. Or maybe they were afraid of being beaten up.
Al Pacino (Scent of a Woman). Thank God no one told Pacino earlier that this was how to win an Oscar. If they had, his entire career might have resembled the Tourettic output of the last decade.
Marisa Tomei (My Cousin Vinnie). Someday I'll wake up and this won't have happened.
This post originally appeared at TNR.com.