Mystic River

Reviewed By Rob Gonsalves
Posted 01/15/07 19:35:45

"Contemplative drama from Eastwood."
5 stars (Awesome)

In the bleak and despairing 'Mystic River,' men sit in rumpled Boston apartments and bars and package stores, pursued in their minds by the furies of the past. Directing his twenty-fourth feature, Clint Eastwood delivers a true rarity -- a work of high seriousness with a laid-back, unemphatic touch.

The movie, like most Eastwood films, takes its time; the camera settles in and meditates on the characters, giving them space to reveal or conceal. The style offers realism as a kind of grim poetry. The plot, taken from a Dennis Lehane novel, verges on gimmicky at times -- or seems to, because you expect it to make good on some of its less plausible red herrings (to its credit, it doesn't) -- but the story is firmly grounded in emotion, the ghosts of loss and shame.

On one level, Mystic River is almost Sleepers for those who hated Sleepers: Here's another drama starring Kevin Bacon in which boys linked together by abuse grow into men haunted by demons of vengeance. But this is the movie Sleepers could only dream of being. Three boys, typical city kids who watch one of their number taken away by two mysterious men who give the impression they're cops, bring the experience into adulthood. We see how each man has adjusted. Jimmy (Sean Penn), who runs a corner shop, has done some time for robbery and still has shady acquaintances from his lawless days. Sean (Kevin Bacon) went the opposite way, becoming a Boston homicide detective whose cold-eyed devotion to his work may have driven away his pregnant wife. Dave (Tim Robbins) is indistinct, unfinished, as if the abuse he suffered at the hands of those two men as a boy had stunted not only his emotions but his soul.

Jimmy's cheerful 19-year-old daughter Katie (Emmy Rossum) is murdered, and the event brings the three childhood friends together, uneasily. Almost gagging on his own grief -- at one point, sitting and talking to Sean and his partner (Laurence Fishburne), Jimmy looks as though he's about to have a heart attack -- the bereaved father demands rough justice. He cooperates with Sean, but we know his agenda doesn't include jail time for his child's killer. Sean chases a few leads, most of which go nowhere, though one leads to Dave's door. We know what Sean doesn't: on the night of the murder, Dave came home to his wife (Marcia Gay Harden) with blood on his hands and a gash on his stomach. He tells her he had a run-in with a mugger. He tells a different story to Jimmy, and yet another one to Sean.

The performances are uniformly superb -- Penn compellingly explosive/implosive, Bacon intelligent and holding emotion at arm's length -- but it's Tim Robbins' movie. Two built-in devices draw our attention to Dave -- he was abused as a boy and looks like the likeliest suspect in the girl's murder -- and Robbins underplays, giving us a morose palooka who sounds dense one minute and then weaves unexpected (if muddled) webs of metaphor, struggling to articulate his feelings. (In one dark scene he speaks of vampires and werewolves, baffling his wife and us.) Dave has a son of his own, and when he walks with the boy down the street where Dave was abducted, Robbins stands stock still, a dark sad exclamation point, and fills his eyes with the boy as if the intensity of his gaze could keep his son safe. Robbins has a heartbreaking scene near the end, too, a speech that could be driven by any number of emotions: confusion, guilt, resignation.

You realize that Eastwood, who left his vigilante pulp behind him over a decade ago, has crafted a work that persuades us to sympathize with a man who could be a brutal murderer. Screenwriter Brian Helgeland (who also wrote Eastwood's previous film, Blood Work) grew up in New Bedford, Massachusetts and worked as a fisherman for a while; he knows how working-class New Englanders talk, leaving volumes unspoken between debates on the Red Sox.

The characters are usually talking about two or three subtextual things (some of which we don't learn till later), and when the men in the movie look at each other, they're really seeing a black car driving away with their childhood. With Eastwood's help, we see it too.

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