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Up the River


Mystic River

Clint Eastwood, USA, 2003

Rating: 4.2



Posted: October 19, 2003

By Kevin Forest Moreau

At first blush, Mystic River doesn't feel too different from past Clint Eastwood pictures. Acts of violence -- senseless, brutal and seemingly inescapable -- drive the action. And slowly, inexorably, the unanswerable questions those acts pose, lingering heavily, like cigarette smoke, come to make more violence appear the only appropriate response. Like Eastwood's magnum opus Unforgiven, it ultimately suggests that violence isn't best met with more violence -- well, not always, anyway. But if Mystic River exists at a far remove from the simplistic popcorn fare of Eastwood's action-hero period (The Dirty Harry series, his Sergio Leone westerns, In The Line of Fire), it nonetheless shares the same bedrock moral universe in which those flicks reside, which is less of a benefit than it might first appear.

Certainly, it's to Eastwood's credit that he approaches Mystic River less as a straightforward crime flick (as opposed to, say, 2002's Blood Work) and more in the considered vein of his more literate directorial efforts (Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, A Perfect World -- hell, even The Bridges of Madison County). But in the end, Mystic River proves, much as Unforgiven did, that it's perhaps impossible for Eastwood to address the violence that has marked much of his cinematic career from a far enough distance. Here, more so than in any other of his films, Eastwood appears to attempt a statement about that violence, about the concepts of force and retribution as practiced in, say, Sudden Impact. But the dramatization of violence -- the glamorization of it, whether intended or not -- proves to be hard-wired into his psyche.

Adapted -- as was Blood Work before it, not to mention Curtis Hanson's L.A. Confidential -- by screenwriter Brian Helgeland from Dennis Lehane's visceral novel, Mystic River turns on two separate acts of violence perpetrated on children. The film begins with its three central characters -- Sean Devine, Jimmy Markum and Dave Boyle -- playing ball in the middle of a street in a rough-hewn, blue-collar Boston neighborhood. A pair of menacing-looking adults pulls up in a car, and one of them, briefly flashing a pair of handcuffs hanging from his belt, suggests that he's a policeman bent on running the boys in for writing their names in wet cement (oh so symbolically, Dave never does finish scratching his name into the sidewalk).

The man bullies fragile-looking Dave into the car, intimating that he's going to drive down a couple of blocks to rat the boy out to his mother. Conditioned (even the sullen troublemaker Jimmy) to obey adult authority figures, the boys let events unfold even as the affair assumes an ominous, not-quite-right air. (We know something's up when the handcuff guy's passenger turns around to eyeball the frightened Dave, and Eastwood focuses in on a ring inscribed with the cross on the man's finger. In Boston, you see, Catholicism is a sure shorthand for pedophilia.) Naturally, Dave isn't taken to his mother at all: He's abducted, and molested for four days in a shadowy basement in the middle of nowhere. He manages to escape, but it's clear to the crowd of gawkers outside his house in the following scene -- and to Sean and Jimmy, and of course to us -- that the boy will never be right again.

The second act of child-directed violence is visited, in the present, upon Katie Markum (Emmy Rossum), the 19-year-old daughter of a grown-up Jimmy (Sean Penn), who's evolved from smart-mouthed street kid to hardened, tattooed ex-con, who's now successfully carved out a slice of lower-middle-class respectability as the owner and operator of a corner grocery store. The same night Katie is murdered, the grown-up Dave (Tim Robbins) stumbles home at 3 a.m., a gash in his stomach and blood on his hands. Inexorably, Dave becomes a prime suspect to everyone but Sean (Kevin Bacon), now a police detective with feelings of ambivalence about his old neighborhood. Naturally, that collective assumption of guilt leads to tragic consequences -- all the more tragic, in the film's final moments, for the sense that almost everyone involved, including Sean, seems okay with the fact that this final, terrible act, like the earlier ones from which it springs, will ultimately go unanswered.

The unsettling ambiguity of this ending is perfect in its appropriateness -- any other outcome would seem contrived, and make Mystic River merely a cut-and-dried whodunit. It's the kind of ending guaranteed to polarize audiences into two camps: those who "get it," and those whose thirst for a tidy wrapping-up of loose ends will be frustrated. And Eastwood nails it as best he can. It's not his fault, after all, that the printed page has an advantage over celluloid in letting us into the motivations and mindsets of its principals, most especially Jimmy's wife Annabeth (Laura Linney), whose protective, circle-the-wagons aura blows up into full-on Lady Macbeth mode, and her cousin, Dave's skittish, insecure spouse Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden). To make things at the end any easier -- say, having a character spell things out in plain English, or worse, suddenly granting us access to the characters' inner monologues -- would be a ruinous cop-out, and Eastwood wisely intuits this.

But it's the only act of real subtlety he commits here: Too often in Mystic River, Eastwood does nothing to dispel the notion that his directorial hand comes with only one setting: Heavy. Smaller, more forgivable sins (an abundance of exposition through dialogue in the early going) give way to more regrettable lapses, the most egregious of which is Eastwood's sense of timing in relation to his self-penned score, which pumps up the volume during key dramatic moments, underlining important scenes with a grandiosity that hammers the point home with all the histrionics of James Horner.

To a degree, Eastwood and his cast share the blame for the film's Oscar-baiting sense of importance. There's no doubt that Mystic River is perfectly cast, from Bacon's regular-guy cop to Penn's grieving, conflicted father, who slides inevitably back into his previous life as a hood. Some performances fare better than others: Laurence Fishburne brings understatement and gravity to his role as Sean's partner, the humorously named Whitey Powers, acting (as all the best film cop partners do) as the hard-nosed, right-and-wrong yang to Sean's intuitive, emotionally pulled yin. Robbins, meanwhile, strikes just the right balance as the still-scarred Dave, who walks around in a shuffling, shell-shocked daze even when he faces the possibility of being blamed for a crime he knows he didn't commit.

But Eastwood's "pay attention" insistence on repeatedly driving home his themes tempts his other two leads to overact -- especially Penn, whose raging grief unashamedly hogs the scenery; it's as unabashed a grab for Oscar gold as was his relentless role in I Am Sam. And Eastwood, having created a climate in which his actors feel compelled to act with a capital "A", does nothing to temper these performances.

Eastwood, having built a career on the ebbs and flows of testosterone, ultimately seems incapable of treating themes of violence in any way other than to underscore them with masculinity and adrenaline at every turn. Thus, Mystic River roars even when calmer waters would be more effective. Oscar voters have responded well in recent years to such overbearing, operatic dramatics, and from its A-list cast on down, Mystic River looks to be a strong contender (even though it's not being released in December, the better, like Chicago, to lodge itself into Academy members' short memories). Too bad, then, that Eastwood swung for the big-marquee allure of the fences, rather than toning down his film's unrelenting tone to resonate more honestly with the viewers in the stands.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A masterpiece
 4.0-4.9: Exceptional

 3.0-3.9: Solid fare

 2.0-2.9: The mediocrities...
 1.1-1.9: Poor
 0.0-1.0: Utter dreck
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