Mystic River Review
A flawed but engaging film, Mystic River succeeds through the sheer weight of talent involved. After the underwhelming Blood Work, Space Cowboys and True Crime, director Clint Eastwood successfully returns to the theme of vengeful vigilantism he personified as Dirty Harry and which earned Unforgiven an Oscar for best picture.
Based on Dennis Lehane’s thriller of the same name, and scripted by hit and miss scribe Brian Helgeland (an excellent adaptation of James Ellroy’s LA Confidential; a plodding adaptation of Michael Connelly’s Blood Work and the execrable The Postman and The Sin Eater), this is a thoughtful if occasionally contrived tale of original sin and tragic reprisals in blue-collar Boston.
To attract a cast like Sean Penn, Kevin Bacon, Tim Robbins, Laurence Fishburne, Laura Linney and Marcia Gay Harden, Mystic River had to offer some meaty roles. And it does.
Opening on a quiet street in the late 70s, three boys – Dave, Sean and Jimmy – are playing when what appears to be a policeman orders Dave into his car. For several days, Dave is sexually abused by the ‘detective’ and his accomplice, before escaping and returning home as “damaged goods”.
A quarter of a century later, and the three have gone their separate ways. Jimmy (Penn) did time for a robbery in his youth, but now has a wife (Linney), family and small grocery business. A tamed tough guy doting on his 19-year-old daughter Katie (Emmy Rossum), he is wary of potential suitors. Sean (Bacon) got out of the area and is now a cop, partnered by the straight talking Whitey (Fishburne) and emotional about his runaway wife. Dave (Robbins) is not so much the walking wounded as the walking undead, a brooding, defeated sad-sack trying to raise a son with his wife, Celeste (Harden).
Jimmy has an irrational dislike of Brendan Harris (Tom Guiry), a teenage kid who visits Jimmy’s store with his deaf brother, Ray (Spencer Treat Clark). It’s not that irrational however, as Katie and Brendan are secretly having a relationship. A vivacious brunette, Katie is recognised by Dave in a bar one night. Packed with men, her precociously flirtatious dancing builds the expectation that something terrible will happen. Sure enough, Dave arrives home that night covered in blood claiming to have fought off a mugger. Next morning, Katie is found dead, Sean is assigned the case and Jimmy vows to find the man who killed his daughter.
From the bar onwards, Helgeland’s script doesn’t signpost itself. But the spectator is constantly being led by the nose. It’s less of a whodunit than a steady unravelling of transgression, retribution and guilt. Breaks in the case occasionally feel coincidental rather than Sean and Whitey’s good police work, and the inevitability of Dave’s fate irks. Bizarrely, a couple of characters even become brighter during interrogation in order to keep the plot moving along. But Eastwood knows how to keep it moving along at a satisfying pace. Many will suss the killer out long before the denouement anyway, so just enjoy the acting.
Penn is eminently watchable as the loving family custodian turned avenger, guilt-tripping over his possible role in Katie’s murder and darker deeds in the past. American critics have compared his suffering to King Lear’s, loosely arguable in terms of the close relationship he had with his dead daughter, but Jimmy is immersed in the community and unlikely to be cast out from it. Bizarrely, there are shades of Macbeth however, as his underwritten wife, Annabeth (Linney) does little before becoming Lady M at the end.
Robbins has the hardest role, but his sad, puppy-fat jowls just about pull off Dave’s victimhood, though his musings on vampires and the script’s clumsy flashbacks undermine this. As his increasingly terrified wife, Harden accredits herself well, though their relationship never quite convinces.
Fishburne is sound and a solid foil to Bacon, who in an understated performance somehow makes the film his own by expanding half the energy of his co-stars: Sean is detached but cares, professional but compromised and Bacon captures these nuances perfectly.
As well as the top-notch efforts of the cast, the moody blue of the cinematography gives a claustrophobic gloom to the neighbourhood and draws you right into the narrative. Mystic River is a respectable addition to the Eastwood canon and a return to form.
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