by Mel Valentin
Every fall, a low- or mid-budget drama, tackling a “serious” subject, and perhaps given critical cachet by the participation of a well-known director and an even better know cast, becomes “the” film championed by critics and audiences alike. As the critical accolades rush in, inevitably the discussion turns to the Academy Awards and whether this particular film will be justly rewarded for its performances, direction, and exploration of the difficult subject matter.Case in point, Mystic River, directed by Clint Eastwood from a script by Brian Helgeland (and based on a popular novel by crime novelist Dennis Lahane), which explores the decades long aftereffects and consequences of pedophilia on three sometime friends, Jimmy Markum (Sean Penn), Dave Boyle (Tim Robbins), and Sean Devine (Kevin Bacon) against the backdrop of a present day crime that inextricably draws the three men together.
"Overpraised, overhyped, notable only for its performances."
Jimmy Markum is a one-time, small-time criminal, who, after serving a prison sentence in his youth, has rehabilitated himself into a small business owner and respectable community leader. Jimmy has a teenage daughter from a previous relationship, Katie (Emmy Rossum), and two children with his current wife, Annabeth (Laura Linney). Dave Boyle, the long-ago victim of sexual predators, lives a shabbily comfortable, if troubled wife. He too is married, to Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden) and has an adolescent son. Dave, still suffering from the psychic wounds of his childhood experience, can barely support his wife. Sean Devine has taken a different path. He’s become a detective in the Boston police department. Sean, it seems, has a troubled home life. His wife has left him, calling him randomly from an undisclosed location. She doesn’t speak (he does, in long-winded, "on-the-nose" monologues).
There are multiple, intractable problems with Mystic River that undermine its perceived critical reputation. First, the double coincidence that ties the death of a central character’s daughter to another central character’s unfortunate, and, of course, undermotivated, decision to go on a rampage the same night. Eastwood and Helgeland simply ask too much of their audience. There’s just too much coincidence, and not enough believability in tying these events to the same night or in the characters’ actions after that night. For example, a central character’s refusal to confess his actions to his wife, even after he's specifically articulated her fears about what he might have done on that fateful night. He prefers that his wife, his only significant connection to stability and normality, think the worst of him, and refusing to offer her a credible explanation for his guilt-ridden behavior. Why?
Second, the inclusion of Sean’s ongoing marital difficulties, expressed through a series of phone calls from his estranged wife (with Eastwood shooting Sean’s wife in tight close up, showing only her mouth and chin) is simply a plot device that probably worked well, or better, on the written page, but which feels “unnatural” and "unrealistic" in a film. It’s meant to allow the audience to gain some insight into Sean’s character and motivation. As a character, Sean is weakly drawn. Using the "talking to an off screen character" plot device to shore up that weakness is almost inexcusable, especially from a world-class director like Eastwood. The character's limitations are most evident in the final dialogue scene between Sean and Jimmy (which runs counter to psychological realism). After making a startling inference about Jimmy's actions, Sean goes on to reminisce about the three childhood friends (again) and the role of chance in their lives, then does nothing. Eastwood and Helgeland cover Sean's decision by having Sean’s wife call him at the end of their conversation. Obsessed with mending his relationship with his wife, Sean walks away, leaving his relationship with Jimmy unsatisfactorily resolved.
Third, Eastwood and Helgeland’s decision to include a “mute” character, who inevitably plays a key part in the mystery, suggests a profound unwillingness to treat Lahane’s source novel critically, eliminating plot devices that undermine themes or push past the need for credibility and believability from the characters, the decisions they make, and the world they inhabit. Simply put, the inclusion of a “mute” character comes across as a B- or even C-level plot device, best left to the pulpier entries in the genres. It's too familiar, tired, and ultimately serves only one narrative purpose, to act as a potential conduit to solving the murder that sets the plot in motion.
Fourth, Eastwood and Helgeland’s unimaginative, literal approach to the novel is evident in the decision to include an opening prologue set several decades in the past. Although the prologue follows the details of the novel closely, a more nuanced approached would have left the prologue as part of the characters' backstories and revealed gradually through dialogue or visual cues (i.e., each return to the incidents portrayed in the prologue uncovering additional information about that fateful day). This change alone would have resulted in greater emotional depth and effect, especially given how reticent the three central characters are about those events as adults.
Of course, many of these issues could be related to translating and adapting a 500-page novel (in paperback format) into a two-hour film, which roughly translates into a 120-page screenplay. A significant amount of compression is needed, pruning secondary characters, eliminating or trimming subplots, but Eastwood and Helgeland simply should have taken more care or time with the script. They didn’t.Sadly, "Mystic River" is notable only for its grounded performances: Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, and to a lesser extent (because he had less to do, or emote to), Kevin Bacon (and not its creaky, conventional, B-level storytelling. Marcia Gay Harden and Laura Linney are underused, their characters undermotivated, in limited roles, leaving them struggling with material unequal to their considerable acting talents. Linney, in particular, is forced to give a “Lady Macbeth”-like speech in the second-to-last scene that has an unintended effect, laughter.
link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=8240&reviewer=402
originally posted: 06/11/05 17:16:15