(2003) Drama (Warner Brothers) Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon, Marcia Gay Harden, Laurence Fishburne, Laura Linney, Kevin Chapman, Thomas Guiry, Emmy Rossum, Spencer Treat Clark, Andrew Mackin, Adam Nelson, Tori Davis, Ari Graynor. Directed by Clint Eastwood
In Al Green’s R&B masterpiece “Take Me to the River,” he uses the river as a metaphor for redemption, for forgetfulness. In Clint Eastwood’s latest directorial effort, it is a place where sins are buried forever in the eternal non-judgmental current that washes them to sea.
Three young boys growing up in a blue-collar Irish neighborhood in Boston are marked for life when one of them is abducted by a pedophile posing as a police officer and held for four days before escaping. The victim is scarred, having invented a different personality for himself in order to survive the ordeal. The other two are guilt-ridden, each wondering what their lives would have been like if they had gotten into the pedophile’s car instead of their cohort.
Years later, they have drifted apart, although not far. Jimmy Markum (Penn) is an ex-con who has reformed, and runs the corner store. Katie (Rossum), his daughter from his first marriage, is the apple of his eye, an eye trained steadily on her and a neighborhood friend Brendan (Guiry), whom he mistrusts. Sean Devine (Bacon) is a homicide detective whose pregnant wife abruptly left him six months earlier and who periodically calls him and says nothing, waiting for Sean to speak, but Sean doesn’t know what to say. Finally Dave Boyle (Robbins), the pedophile’s victim, shuffles around like he’s in one of the vampire movies he loves to watch, and tries to make sense of the skewed perceptions his damaged mind takes in.
The three men see each other periodically, but are not friends the same way they were as children, although they remain drawn to their neighborhood and in fact the events that so marked them those years ago.
When Katie is brutally murdered, the three are drawn back together again, particularly as Sean is assigned the case. Dave reconnects with Jimmy, especially since Dave’s wife Celeste (Harden) is cousin to Jimmy’s second wife Annabeth (Linney). But as the men are drawn together, it becomes clear they are heading for an explosion. Dave arrives home the night Katie is killed covered in blood and with an implausible story. Celeste suspects that he is not telling her everything, but fears to connect the dots. Jimmy is a raging inferno, trying to reconcile his turbulent emotions but keeping it together externally; you literally expect him to have some of his internal organs pop out of his skin several times during the course of the movie. And while Sean’s partner Whitey (Fishburne in a most un-Morpheus-like role) trains his suspicions on Dave, Sean is reluctant to suspect his childhood friend, who endured so much; the psychology is wrong, and Sean’s survivor guilt is becoming an impediment.
When Celeste finally breaks down and tells Jimmy her suspicions, the chain of events becomes inevitable. You get the sense that Katie’s tomb is actually a vortex, sucking the three men into a unavoidable collision. When it comes, you half-expect the film’s very celluloid to combust.
Eastwood knows how to let a story tell itself at its own pace. At times, Mystic River is languid and slow-moving, but that is only because the characters must have their chance to develop; without that, the movie would collapse. At other times, the movie feels like it is rushing viewers along in a riptide. Eastwood also is a master of establishing mood; at no point do you ever doubt the reality of the neighborhood and the people.
There are some great performances here. Penn is masterful as the tortured father of a murdered 19-year-old daughter. It resonates from the moment he realizes that she’s been murdered to the end of the movie and obviously resonated with the Academy – he garnered his first Best Actor Oscar for the role. He is a violent man, although that violence is kept below the surface; you spend every moment wondering when he will erupt; yet he never goes over the top. His actions all are consistent with the character, and Penn’s emotional performance makes Jimmy Markum real. Penn was so underrated as an actor at the time this was made; in time, he has become considered with the likes of De Niro, Pacino and Hoffman in the elite cinematic pantheon. His performance here is the chief reason you should see this movie.
Bacon and Robbins are solid in their roles; Robbins has a more difficult task in trying to humanize and make relatable a man who has been through something most of us cannot imagine. He is successful most of the time, but such an effort is made to make him appear guilty (when the majority of the audience will probably realize that he is not) that it robs him of his credibility. However, his portrayal of a damaged, tortured soul was enough to win him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Bacon is more restrained in his performance, but doesn’t really convey as much emotionally as the incendiary Penn, and thus his work pales next to his co-star.
The supporting cast is for the most part solid, although Harden as the weak, emotionally dependent Celeste is at times cloying but what do I know – she was nominated for an Oscar for it.
Much has been made of the ending, which is (I think) deliberately ambiguous, especially regarding how the survivors react. The ending badly disrupts the flow of the movie. Mystic River is a good movie that could have been better, had the ending not been so badly botched.
WHY RENT THIS: Oscar-winning performances and a compelling story.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Ending completely ruins the film.
FAMILY MATTERS: There’s a lot of bad language and a lot of violence, some of it implied of a sexual nature.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: In a scene set in the morgue where Jimmy is alone with Katie’s body and emotionally promising revenge, the corpse burst into tears because actress Emmy Rossum was so moved by Penn’s performance.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There are some interviews from “The Charlie Rose Show” of Bacon, Robbins and Eastwood. The 3-Disc Deluxe DVD edition includes the soundtrack from the film.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $156.8M on a $25M production budget; the movie was a huge hit.
DENNIS LAHANE LOVERS: The author of the book the movie was based on makes a cameo appearance during the parade sequence in which he can be spotted waving to the crowd from the back of a convertible.
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Carol Channing: Larger Than Life