Emotionally searing Mystic River

BY LYNN LEE

“Mystic River” begins with three young boys playing in the street of a working-class neighborhood in Boston. A car pulls up just as they are tracing their names in a freshly cemented sidewalk, and a middle-aged man emerges. Identifying himself as a cop, he rebukes the boys for vandalism while at the same time sizing them up narrowly. One of the boys answers back, the very set of his chin signaling pugnacious defiance. The second is clean-cut and more deferential. The third, hiding under a baseball cap, hangs back and replies more uncertainly than the other two. As he, and he alone, is hustled into the back of the car, the unsettling realization dawns that he has been chosen as a victim, not a culprit. He can only stare out the back window at his friends, and they can only stare back, transfixed, as the distance widens inexorably between them and him.

Twenty-five years later, all three of them are still alive and living in or near their old neighborhood. All three have, however, drifted apart, though two are now connected by marriage. The tough one, Jimmy (Sean Penn), has become the tough man, an ex-con who now runs a legitimate business but still functions as a de facto local boss. The straight kid, Sean (Kevin Bacon), is now a homicide detective for the state police. The boy who got into the car, Dave (Tim Robbins), appears to have no fixed occupation, though he is married to the cousin of Jimmy’s wife and is a devoted father to his young son. A twist of fate draws the three men together again when Jimmy’s daughter is brutally murdered. Sean is appointed to investigate the case, and Dave becomes one of the prime suspects.

“Mystic River,” adapted from the crime novel by Dennis Lehane, is already being hailed as Clint Eastwood’s finest directorial effort and one of the best films of the year. Both claims are inflated, though certainly not devoid of merit. The movie is well-acted and offers a searching, emotionally searing exploration of how old sins cast long shadows: the crime that sets the three men on a collision course feels like the inevitable second act to the earlier, unspeakable incident of their childhood.

This is heavy, dark stuff, and for better or for worse, Eastwood’s direction leaves it that way. He has a good eye for the blue-collar, Southie Irish Catholic milieu through which the characters move, and is clearly intent on capturing the complex, ultimately destructive intersection of guilt, revenge and family loyalties that the story presents. His approach, however, is strictly minimalist: the florid operatic treatment of the “Godfather” trilogy is not for him. Nor does he stylize the whodunit aspect of the narrative as, say, Brian DePalma might have done, or as Curtis Hanson did in the far superior “L.A. Confidential.” In fact, Eastwood generally refrains from aestheticizing either the atmospherics or the substance of the novel, which is in some ways admirable, but which also means the movie moves very slowly at times. The deliberate pacing heightens the sense of tragedy, at the expense of the mystery: while you may not figure out who killed the girl, the overall plot arc feels overdetermined long before the actual climax arrives.

Eastwood relies on his actors to deliver most of the movie’s punch, and they do so with interest. Sean Penn is the obvious standout here: he’s one of the few actors under 50 with true muscle, and he flexes it – both literally and figuratively – with a vengeance as the bereaved father whose movement from raw grief to animal rage turns on the edge of a dime. The other two stars are, however, just as good. Tim Robbins nicely extrapolates the shuffling, hangdog gait of the young Dave: he walks through the movie like a kind of living ghost, but one who at a critical moment is seen with blood on his hands. The occasional shift in his expression from glassy vacancy to brooding, incommunicable anger underlines the disquieting fact that in some fundamental way he never left the car that took him away so many years ago. Kevin Bacon holds his own as the mediating figure of law and order between two loose cannons who always seem to be teetering on the brink of violence. He manages to convey, with remarkable subtlety, Sean’s ambivalent attitude towards his old friends, particularly the mixture of guilt and obligation he feels towards Dave – emotions that are emphasized just enough, but not too much, in his interactions with his fellow investigator in the case (Laurence Fishburne).

The women in the movie fare less well. Marcia Gay Harden, as Dave’s wife, is the only one with a truly substantial role, which consists primarily of her looking increasingly, albeit justifiably, haggard and terrified of her husband. Laura Linney is largely wasted as Jimmy’s clannish wife Annabeth, and one senses that her part was considerably reduced for purposes of the film: Her one dramatic scene, near the end, reveals what was probably a key element of her character in the book, but in the movie it simply strains credulity. Worst of all is the treatment of Sean’s estranged wife: we never hear her voice or see her face (except for her mouth, poised above a telephone) until the coda, when her appearance strikes as false a note as Annabeth’s final harangue. If that plot thread was preserved from the novel, it didn’t need to be.

The clunky handling of the ending, in contrast with the gripping opening, ultimately unmoors the film just when we expect it to come together. The dominating feeling is not so much existential despair as simple deflation; there is a sense of emptiness, but not the kind that follows catharsis. Perhaps that is precisely the intent, however poorly executed: “Mystic River” is ultimately a meditation on guilt – the kind of guilt that can’t be purged, not by violence, not by remorse, and certainly not by the machinery of the law. As such, for all its flaws, it leaves an indelible mark, like that of the film’s most arresting image: three names etched into the sidewalk, one unfinished, tied together for all time.

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