Director : Clint Eastwood
Screenplay : Brian Helgeland (based on the novel by Dennis Lehane)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2003
Stars : Sean Penn (Jimmy Markum), Tim Robbins (Dave Boyle), Kevin Bacon (Sean Devine), Laurence Fishburne (Whitey Powers), Marcia Gay Harden (Celeste Boyle), Laura Linney (Annabeth Markum), Kevin Chapman (Val Savage), Adam Nelson (Nick Savage), Emmy Rossum (Katie)
Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River has all the emotional resonance and narrative contrivance of a Shakespearean tragedy, except it’s set in a working-class Irish-Catholic neighborhood in Boston. It’s a big, ambitious meditation on life and death, guilt, vengeance, and the bonds between husbands and wives, and many critics have already declared it Eastwood’s masterpiece. While it may be a few years before such a designation can be bestowed upon it, it is nonetheless a deeply felt, haunting work that ranks among Eastwood’s best films, particularly his Oscar-winning Unforgiven (1992) and the undervalued White Hunter, Black Heart (1989) and A Perfect World (1993). Like those films, Mystic River is ultimately about violence—real and imagined—and how it affects people.
The story centers on three men who were childhood friends, but have gone their separate ways in adulthood. Jimmy (Sean Penn) is a tough ex-con who now runs a local grocery store; Sean (Kevin Bacon) is a homicide detective; and Dave (Tim Robbins) is a handyman whose social inwardness and tepid nature are the result of his having been abducted and sexually abused as a boy, a day that haunts all three of them because they were all there when it happened. While writing their names in wet concrete, two men claiming to be police officers pulled up, scolded them, and then left with Dave, whose abrupt loss of childhood at the hands of violent sexual deviants is symbolized by his unfinished name in the now-dry concrete, “Dave” reduced to “Da.”
Their lives cross during adulthood when Jimmy’s beloved 19-year-old daughter, Katie (Emmy Rossum), the only child from his first marriage, is brutally murdered one evening. That same night, Dave comes home at three o’clock in the morning, his fist bruised and raw, his stomach cut, and his clothes covered with someone else’s blood. He tells his wife, Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden), that he was attacked by a mugger and he retaliated and maybe killed the man. But, the coincidence of that happening on the same night Katie is beaten and shot to death seems a little too much, especially when we find out that Dave was at the same bar where Katie was last seen. And, of course, his childhood experience of being sexually abused casts doubts as well, which plays into the film’s theme of the past always haunting the present.
Although they have grown apart, there are many links among the three men that both draw them together and separate them. First of all, they all continue to live in Boston, but in different areas, with Sean having moved across the river to the main part of the city while Jimmy and Dave have remained in the old neighborhood (in the first scene in which we see Dave as an adult, he has to walk by the sidewalk where his truncated name is forever etched). All of them are married, but to drastically different women. Jimmy’s wife, Annabeth (Laura Linney), is completely loyal to her husband, and when he does something terrible and misguided at the end of the film, she deludes herself and him into thinking that it was the right thing to do. Celeste, on the other hand, is wavering in her devotion to Dave, and it is she who ultimately determines his fate with her lack of her faith. If Annabeth is frightening in her blind devotion, which makes her into a sort of Lady Macbeth character, Celeste is fragile and heartbroken by her doubts in her husband, who is clearly lying about something. Sean’s wife, who we barely see, left him six months earlier and calls him frequently, only to remain silent on the phone. Like the bad memory of that day when Dave was taken, she haunts Sean’s life, repeatedly, but wordlessly, making her presence known, reminding him of his loss.
The basic structure of Mystic River is that of a police procedural, as we have a murder victim, but no clear murderer. Everything seems to point to Dave, but Sean is reluctant to go after his childhood friend, even at the insistence of his partner, Whitey (Laurence Fishburne). Yet, the film is not just a whodunit because the revelation of the killer resonates not just on the level of mystery, but on a deeper level related to the characters’ emotions and connections. When one character kills another, we see the endless circularity of violence and how it solves nothing, even if the killer feel fully justified. It’s a hollow exercise, and even though the film’s closing passages seem to suggest on a narrative level that vengeance is a noble deed when done for the right reasons, the looks in the characters’ eyes tell us otherwise.
Eastwood has been directing films for more than 30 years, some great, some good, and some bad. Mystic River fits well thematically with many of his other works, although it at times takes on a more spiritual tone. Eastwood’s camera frequently cranes up or down from the sky, emphasizing the God’s eye perspective on the story. Some have also seen this as underscoring a sense of fatalism in the story. Granted, one could read the film as fatalistic, especially in its insistence on the perpetual cycle of violence. Yet, because it is so strongly character-driven, the film foregrounds the choices made by Jimmy, Sean, Dave, and the others and how those lead to consequences. There is no divine intervention here, but rather life as led by a group of realistic, understandable characters who have their own unique strengths and flaws.
To that end, Mystic River should be praised for great performances all-around. Penn reaches deep into Jimmy and evokes both his tough-guy, tattooed exterior, but also the churning, conflicted anger within. He is a violent man, one who uses local hoods in the neighborhood to track down his daughter’s killer so he can invoke his own sense of justice, but he is also painfully vulnerable; his violence is just a cover. Kevin Bacon also evokes the sense of a man hiding his inner pain, but he does it with police professionalism and a dedication to finding Katie’s killer using the “proper” channels. As Dave, Tim Robbins gives the film’s best performance, a nuanced, heartbreaking portrait of a man completely at war with himself, so much so that he seems unable to walk comfortably in his own skin. His scenes with Marcia Gay Harden, who has one the film’s trickiest roles, are tense and brimming with pent-up emotions; the past erupting into the present.
Despite the power of the performances and the clean efficiency of Eastwood’s direction, some will likely find fault in the film’s narrative (taken from a novel by Dennis Lehane and adapted by L.A. Confidential’s Brian Helgeland), particularly some of its coincidences and contrivances. These, however, can be forgiven because they serve the story’s thematic material and the characters, rather than just existing to give us a good surprise or a new twist. The mystery aspect of the story ultimately hinges on two events having taken place on the night Katie was killed, which is, at best, an alarming coincidence. Yet, it doesn’t really matter because it brings us to a scene in which Eastwood juxtaposes two scenes of confrontation, one between a pair of brothers and the other between a pair of “brothers” that shakes the story to its foundation, reminding us that the cycle of violence continues, but only because people make the choices that allow it to do so.
Copyright © 2003 James Kendrick