Mystic River

October, 2003, Thriller

Directed by:Clint Eastwood

Starring:Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon, Laurence Fishburne, Marcia Gay Harden, Laura Linney, and Emmy Rossum

Be forewarned; if you've read the immensely popular novel from which Clint Eastwood fashioned his 24th film, (as director, not actor) you'll probably experience a much different movie than those encountering the plot here for the first time. Screenwriter Brian Helgeland, who did the adaptation of James Ellroy's L.A. Confidential, (earning an Oscar nomination along the way) possess the unique ability to boil a complex criminal narrative down to its essentials so an audience can grasp the best parts of a 300+ page novel in a couple of hours. No small feat, that; Helgeland manages to repeat the trick here, delivering to an excellent cast the kind of terse, profane and matter-of-fact dialogue which perfectly captures the working class milieu of South Boston. But Eastwood isn't just interested in covering the same ground he has visited in previous thrillers; with Mystic, the director takes a pointedly philosophical look at the issue of violence and delivers a mordant view of its destructive costs. 

Eastwood & Helgeland begin their story with a traumatic incident in the lives of three neighborhood kids which returns more than 3 decades later to confound their handling of a dreadful event that promises to curse them all over again. As adults, Sean Penn, (now an ex-con bodega owner) Tim Robbins, (high school baseball star now part-time odd-job holder) and Kevin Bacon, (an embittered detective with the state police) find themselves confronting old demons when, on the day Penn's youngest daughter makes her first holy communion, his eldest daughter is found brutally murdered. Working with his suspicious partner, (Lawrence Fishburne) Bacon races to solve the crime before Penn's lust for retribution destroys their old friendship. Since both feel they've failed Robbins, (who was one of the last people to see the young girl alive) this trio of childhood buddies engages in an edgy dance of mutual suspicion when two separate and equally plausible candidates emerge as the likely perpetrator.

Eastwood has never been a director in love with gimmicks and he uses that spare, pared-down style here to great effect, unfolding his story with a clarity that never tips his hand. Hanson's novel beautifully captured a blue-collar urban neighborhood in the midst of socio-economic change, and Eastwood visually captures the feel of the author's sense of place; everything belongs here, from claustrophobic kitchens to cracked sidewalks to the neighborhood's aging parish church. The camera observes chipped paint and hardscrabble lives with equal dispassion, suggesting that everything it sees is simply an inevitable fact of life. Don't expect much-- and you won't be too disappointed.

Marcia Gay Harden, (as Robbins's simpering wife) and Laura Linney, (as Penn's strong-willed spouse) perfectly compliment quality performances by the three male leads and arguments will inevitably arise about which one turns in the best results. Penn's savagely honorable father has pride of place in the script, but Harden and Robbins, (as a washed-out wreck so lost in his own life he's incapable of explaining himself to his family) both deliver wonderful performances. Kevin Bacon's morose cop, estranged from his wife and uneasy in this return to his old neighborhood, tellingly conveys the pain of a man whose life has inexplicably run off the rails. While the early raves have gone to Penn, his three co-stars deserve equal praise.

Not content to simply direct, Eastwood wrote the musical score as well, employing a simple 4-note refrain used in the Roman Catholic Mass to accompany the phrase "Lord, have mercy" in fashioning an elegiac accompaniment to this examination of the kind of violence which not only begets more violence, but frustrates closure as well. The director's music makes even the film's sunny days somber and its afternoon shadows weep with unwanted knowledge.

So what's not to like? Ostensibly employing a murder mystery format to address more fundamentally serious dramatic issues is very tricky business; while Eastwood captures the novel's abiding sadness, his approach to the subject of violence, (at odds with its use in so many of his starring roles) gets uncomfortably juxtaposed with the progression of the storyline and it's hard not to be jarred by his actors' frequent use of soliloquies designed to deepen the audience's understanding of the larger issues Eastwood wants to examine. He should have trusted his directorial skills along with our ability to empathize; instead, the sympathetic personas meticulously crafted by his actors occasionally lurch into awkward, overwrought ramblings which detract from the credibility of personalities we've already identified with, rendering them less believable. 

In murder mysteries, solving the crime always enjoys pride of place over motivation anyway; the latter matters, but it can't be credibly delivered in verbose spurts that distract from spinning out the web of clues that expose the guilty. That inherent contradiction may explain why the "who dunnit" rarely rises above its formulaic limitations, and only does so when its characters generate a sympathy that's experienced more than explained. Helgeland's script clarifies the novel's action to enhance its dramatic impact without providing any such additional rationale, while Eastwood undercuts the fine efforts of his cast by requiring them to articulate what should have been left unspoken. Had he exercised more restraint, he might well have transcended the genre he otherwise so effectively employed.

The verdict? A serious examination of the corrosive costs of violent revenge that gets bogged down in misplaced moral speculation, blunting the impact of what is otherwise a compelling, well-made film.      

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