Mystic River (2003) – Buy Yourself Some Sweets Afterwards to Cheer Yourself Up…

Clint Eastwood tackles another harrowing tale in his adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s novel of the same name. One thing you know about Eastwood as a director is he’s always going to give it to you straight, and although many of his films of the past decade could uncharitably be described as Feelbad Flicks, I never resent getting taken on a downer by him, because I appreciate how he treats his audience as grown ups – there’s no flashy camera work or comic relief, he just tells it like it is.

In some ways, he regards his subjects with the same steely, fatalistic gaze as his two most famous onscreen characters – the “Man With No Name” from Leone’s “Dollars” Trilogy, and “Dirty” Harry Callahan. Those were both mis-read portrayals at the time – critics accused him of chronic underacting. One story tells of Eastwood receiving the script of “A Fistful of Dollars” and crossing out most of his character’s lines – he felt he could do more with just a look.

And that’s what he does as a director – he does more with just a look. This doesn’t make him a heartless or cold director. It just means he understands the trials and tribulations of life, and realizes he can do more for them by just pointing his camera and watching – with real emotions and situations, he doesn’t need to impose himself to make them any more “real”.

“Mystic River” begins in a grey, nondescript Boston suburb in the 70’s, with three lads- Sean, Jimmy and Dave – playing hockey in the street. Having lost their ball down a drain, they turn their attention to a freshly laid section of concrete, and dare each other to write their names in it. They are caught in the act by two men in a car; they claim to be police officers, and force Dave into the car, under the pretense of taking him home to his parents to tell them what he’s been up to.

The two men are actually pedophiles, and hold Dave in a basement and subject him to sexual abuse. He manages to escape, but returns to his family, friends and neighborhood as “damaged goods”.

Skip forward twenty-five years, and the three boys are still living in Boston – Dave, although still scarred by his ordeal, has grown up into Tim Robbins; he holds down a steady job and has a wife and kid, but is still haunted by his time in that cellar.

Jimmy (Sean Penn) is now an ex-con, who is determinedly rebuilding his life as the proprietor of a convenience store. He too is married, and is devoted to his beautiful young daughter Katie (Emmy Rossum), and despite his attempts to go straight, can’t quite escape his sinister background. This is not helped by his association with the nutty Savage brothers, a pair of local goons who frighten the neighbors.

Of the three, Sean (Kevin Bacon), has made the best go of it – he’s now a detective, and no longer lives in the old neighborhood.

The plot kicks into motion when Katie goes missing after a night out with friends, and is discovered beaten and shot in a ditch. Dave was sitting in the same bar as her the night she disappeared, and becomes a suspect, not only in the eyes of the police, but Jimmy, and also his wife – he came back home in the early hours, covered in blood and claiming to have beaten a mugger to death.

It would be unfair to reveal any more of the plot – while there are no grandstanding twists and turns, the subsequent mystery unfolds with believable revelations and reactions from the characters.

It’s probably not revealing too much by saying the film ends with tragedy, pivoting on almost identical shots of Dave, as a child, disappearing down the street in the back of the pedophile’s car; and Dave, as an adult, disappearing down the street in the back of a car belonging to someone more familiar to him.

As you’d expect from a serious drama directed by Clint Eastwood, the cast is heavyweight and the performances are uniformly excellent.

Robbins, as the haunted Dave, uses his sad-sack face and towering frame to suggest a man who is both beaten and a potential, violent threat.

Sean Penn, usually the guarantee of a Feelbad movie, gives a typically intense performance in what could be a hackneyed role of the ex-con trying to go straight. Also, he avoids his unfortunate tendency to overplay, and veer towards melodrama – here, his emotions and reactions are completely believable, although not necessarily helped by Eastwood. Notice how the camera zooms in ever so slightly when Penn’s about to do some serious acting – he’s not overplaying, but the camera work seems to say – “Get ready! Sean’s going to do some acting now!”

Pick of the bunch is Kevin Bacon as Sean. I think every movie should have Kevin Bacon in it. Since his earlier, funnier ones (I’m thinking “Footloose” and “Tremors”), he’s always given it the best, even in smaller roles – think of his indelible work in a cast of seemingly thousands as a gay prostitute in Oliver Stone’s “JFK”.

He can make genre dross work – “Stir of Echoes” was basically a one man show, and was actually a better scare ride than the more critically acclaimed, similarly themed “The Sixth Sense” and “The Others”. And he should have at least got an Oscar Nom for his terrific turn as the nonce with the heart of gold in the trim, creepy “The Woodsman” – a really brave performance.

In “Mystic River”, he has the least to work with, as the earnest detective lumbered with the unforgiving task of investigating the murder of an old friend’s daughter, but is the film’s human center – he manages to portray a man who sympathizes with both the suspected killer and the bereaved, angry father, without losing sense of his duty to do the right thing by his profession.

The three main leads are given sterling support. Laurence Fishburne makes the most of a two dimensional role as Sean’s cynical partner. Laura Linney shines through as the frosty, grimly devoted wife of Penn’s Jimmy, although her role is tragically underwritten. On the flip side, Marcia Gay Harden excels as the frightened, doubting wife of Dave – her doubts about her husband sets into motion his eventual demise.

Emmy Rossum, perhaps best known for looking luscious and getting fondled by Gerard Butler’s sleazy phantom in Joel Schumacher‘s gaudy extravaganza, “The Phantom of the Opera” makes the most of a few scenes as the vital, sweet, fun-loving Katie.

This is not an easy watch, and is probably best reserved for a time when you’re feeling pretty good, but in the mood for a good adult drama. Eastwood is not afraid to say to you, “Life’s a bitch”, and like his sucker-punching inversion of the plucky underdog story, “Million Dollar Baby”, will leave you feeling pretty low if you’re not in the right frame of mind for it.

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About leerobertadams

Lee is an English writer, blogger and film critic living in Brno, Czech Republic. When not watching and writing about movies, he loves football, reading, eating out, and enjoying his adopted home city with his girlfriend and baby daughter.

Posted on 08/11/2011, in Drama, Film, M, Reviews and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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