2003, R, 137 min. Directed by Clint Eastwood. Starring Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon, Laurence Fishburne, Marcia Gay Harden, Laura Linney, Kevin Chapman.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Oct. 17, 2003
Based on Dennis Lehane’s novel, adapted here by Brian Helgeland, Mystic River is the type of film I imagine you could return to time and again only to discover previously unseen layers. It’s a dark, lachrymose tale of slowly snaking evil, forged in the kiln of childhood and shadowing its adult targets throughout their lives, corrupting hard-won happiness and casting ruin over all. Hardly cheery stuff, but beneath Eastwood’s sure directorial hand, it’s immensely powerful; there’s enough free-floating grief here to blot out the sweetest memories and blacken the characters from the inside out. It’s also something of a war movie – between the past and the present, between children and the adults they strive toward being but never fully become, and between the awful randomness of tragedy and the metronomic march of guilt. We first see Jimmy (Penn), Sean (Bacon), and Dave (Robbins) as children, playing street hockey in a Boston suburb. While scrawling their names in a patch of wet cement, a black sedan pulls up, disgorging a man who says he’s a cop and promptly takes Dave away. The event quickly turns unspeakable – the stranger and his silent partner are pedophiles. Dave manages to escape after four days in hell, but both his life and his relationship to his friends are permanently soured. Thirty years later, Jimmy is the punkish owner of the neighborhood package store, Sean is a cop, and Dave is wandering through the cemetery of his own mind, married to Celeste (Harden, in an exceptional turn) and with a young son, but never truly far from the back seat of that awful black sedan. When Jimmy’s 19-year-old daughter is brutally murdered on the same night that Dave returns home late with someone else’s blood all over his shirt, the events of the past come ricocheting homeward, knocking all three of them into terrible and woeful orbits around each other. This is Eastwood’s most assured direction since Unforgiven, and the bracing performances throughout carry the bitter ring of authenticity. Penn is particularly fine as the street-level thug-turned-family man. As an actor, he’s finally begun to age into the lines of his face; Jimmy’s brow furrows in suspicion at the merest hint of trouble, and you can see the reptile inside trying to assert dominance over the man. Bacon, too, is solid, but it’s Tim Robbins’ haunted Dave that really bears note. Shuffling through the film like a stiff-jointed corpse, he’s propped up by the care of his wife but with lingering wounds too deep to ever fully heal and that, in time, become septic. Eastwood again uses cinematographer Tom Stern (Blood Work), who bleeds the life out of neo-slummy Boston’s wooden row houses and dirty streets. He lights the three leads with a funereal pall and manages to make even the usually vibrant Marcia Gay Harden look on the verge of doom. Mystic River asks plenty of questions but rarely if ever offers any answers, and certainly no easy ones. If this fine and sorrowful film is what can be expected from our aging cinema icons, here’s to the golden years, dark though they may be.