Kevin Bacon, Tim Robbins, and Sean Penn in Mystic River (2003)


(director: Clint Eastwood; screenwriters: from the novel by Dennis Lehane/Brian Helgeland; cinematographer: Tom Stern; editor: Joel Cox; music: Clint Eastwood; cast: Sean Penn (Jimmy), Tim Robbins (Dave), Kevin Bacon (Sean), Laurence Fishburne (Whitey), Marcia Gay Harden (Celeste Boyle), Kevin Chapman (Val Savage), Laura Linney (Annabeth Markum), Adam Nelson (Nick Savage), Tom Guiry (Brendan Harris), Emmy Rossum (Katie), Spencer Treat Clark (Silent Ray); Runtime: 137; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Robert Lorenz/Judie Hoyt/Bruce Berman; Warner Bros.; 2003)
“A lot more effective than most similar cop thrillers that go only for the conventional bang-bang scenarios.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Clint Eastwood’s latest is a deliberate leisurely paced psychological crime thriller based on the best-selling novel by Dennis Lehane. The screenplay is by L.A. Confidential’s Oscar winning screenwriter Brian Helgeland. It’s a complex story that is an unraveling of a mystery that goes back several generations where all the characters are intertwined through family or neighborhood or criminal activities. Mystic River is set in the close-knit Irish-Catholic working-class section of South Boston’s triple-decker wood-frame houses (the film was shot at that location and that added greatly to the realistic mood). It tells the tale about three adolescents in the summer of 1975, Dave Boyle, Jimmy Markum and Sean Devine, who all become scarred for life when Dave is abducted and molested for four days before escaping from two men posing as cops. The boys were carving their names in fresh sidewalk cement after playing street hockey, before the men took Dave away in their car. The three boys can’t face each other after that traumatic incident and though remaining in the neighborhood lose touch. They are suddenly reunited by a murder some 25 years later when they are all approaching their forties. Jimmy Markum’s (Sean Penn) flighty 19-year-old daughter Katie (Rossum) is found brutally murdered in the nearby state park. Sean Devine (Kevin Bacon) is the investigating homicide detective from the Massachusetts State Police along with his black sergeant partner Whitey Powers (Laurence Fishburne). In the book Whitey is a white character, which should explain his first name.

The grief-stricken Jimmy loved his oldest daughter Katie, from his saintly deceased first wife, more than anything else in the world. Jimmy is now married to the supportive Annabeth (Laura Linney) and has two young daughters with her. When Jimmy faces Sean again after not seeing him for several years, the two once again become haunted by their bitter childhood memories. Jimmy has done a two year prison stretch 16 years ago and the guy with a large tattoo of cross going down the back of his neck now operates a convenience store in the neighborhood, though outwardly legit he remains a shady character. While Sean is all cop, he nevertheless has patience for his old pal even though he realizes they are operating on opposite sides of the fence. But old friendship or not, Jimmy warns that he better get the killer first or he will–an ode to sweet revenge. The Savage Brothers are the local thugs that help Jimmy scour the neighborhood for the killer, as the locals are distrustful of the police and talk more freely to their own kind.

On the same night as the murder, it was Dave’s (Tim Robbins) hard luck to be the last person to see Katie alive at the local bar. When Dave came home in the wee hours of the night with his hand banged up and all bloody from cuts, he told his wife Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden) he was mugged. But when he’s consoling Jimmy, on his porch, he says his hand was damaged somewhere else, and when the detectives bring him in for questioning he gives still another reason for his injured hand and why blood was found in his car that was not his.

For the time being Eastwood keeps the focus on the police investigation as it leads to Dave as the primary suspect after Katie’s secret boyfriend Brendan Harris (Tom Guiry) is cleared as a suspect. Brendan’s runaway criminal father “Just Ray” Harris was an old enemy of Jimmy’s, which is the reason for the couple’s secrecy knowing that Jimmy would not allow his daughter to see his enemy’s son.

But while Whitey hones in on Dave as primary suspect and pushes his reluctant partner’s buttons by saying he’s not going there because of their past friendship, Sean stands fast and refuses to believe it is possible for Dave to kill Katie after all he’s been through. Sean’s savvy cop instincts lead him to trace the bullet from the murder weapon and he finds that it was the same one used by “Just Ray” in a liquor store holdup in 1984. But to complicate things further the fearful Celeste, a relative of Annabeth, is disturbed that Dave lied and is now so repelled by him that she thinks he killed Katie. Rather than trust the cops, the unthinking Celeste tells this to Jimmy which is the same as executing him. It made little sense. Even though Dave had a hard time adjusting to family life and couldn’t find steady work and is walking around slumped over as if he were still living out his nightmarish childhood experience, he’s still been an excellent father to his young son and has been non-violent with his wife. The one thing Dave did well was play high school baseball and in a supportive way he helps his son with his poor hitting skills. Why Celeste still found her man a mystery and though growing up in the same neighborhood never knew about Dave’s past, didn’t quite jibe.

The story is emotionally wracking, poignantly urban and religiously dreary. Religion is merely seen by Jimmy as a ritualistic means of exorcizing the Devil, but not as a practical way for daily life. The truths Mystic River digs for are surface ones, not big metaphorical truths, as the god-like figure who watches everything from above is pictured as a twisted lone wolf avenger unable to stop the cycle of violence. The intent is to show that violence is inevitable as a human condition. You could plaster Clint’s movie face across this movie god-like figure, and it will look like Dirty Harry and all those other western gunmen he has played in his long career.

“Mystic” tells in a heartfelt way about a youngster’s innocence taken away during childhood and how he’s now only a shell of a man. Through Dave’s eyes we see that he lives by the macho credo of the neighborhood: when adversity strikes, you suck it up and keep it to yourself. Dave lies because he’s been so hurt that he doesn’t trust anyone anymore. Jimmy lies because he’s split by his need to be a responsible family man and keep in check his pent up rage. While Sean is too bottled up to communicate with his wife to the point where she leaves him. Eastwood shuns any attempts to get arty and keeps the melodramatics away from the dramatics by keeping everything simple as a convincing though superficial character study. The film’s aims are broader in scope than in going with the murder investigation as a way of resolving street crime, as it comes to the daunting conclusion that life marches on no matter what. A patriotic parade at the conclusion drums up that point, which makes the same statement as when the film opened with men talking Red Sox baseball on their porch in a gesture to sports being part of the American fabric that is passed down through the generations just as easily as violence.

“Mystic” aims to show that violence begets violence and warns that revenge leads to an endless cycle of violence. It also goes out of its way to show that there’s no such a guarantee that keeping a gun in a house, even if hidden, wouldn’t be used in a wrongful way if found by a youngster.

The film was made for $25 million by Warner Brothers, with the hand-shake deal between Clint and the studio being that he makes one for them and they allow him to make one for himself. Clint also worked for scale, as the 72-year-old not only directed but created the original music. The outstanding actors were fully paid, as they were hand-picked by the former mayor of Carmel. By the seriousness and intelligence of this tight script and by the superb ensemble cast collected, it is easy to tell that this one was for Clint.

It’s a dark study about violence rather than an action film. It’s even darker than Clint’s 1992 masterpiece Unforgiven, his last really good film. “Mystic” asks — What it is to be a man? The busy camera that circles the Boston skyline from its helicopter with shots above and zooms that close-in on the characters, tries to answer that in a clinical way. The subjects are viewed as if they were zoo animals trapped in a cage and are now being put under the microscope to see what makes them tick. This clinical way of getting to how dangerous the urban scene can be was surprisingly a lot more effective than most similar cop thrillers that go only for the conventional bang-bang scenarios.

This is an actors film. They all got what it was about and delivered big time. Sean Penn is as dynamic as Brando’s On The Waterfront stint, and gives one of those memorable emotionally classic Method Acting performances. The strapping 6 feet 5 Tim Robbins has the film’s most challenging role, to shrink down in size so his character is still frozen in his childhood. He is a man of many tics and small gestures and shoulders that stoop, someone you feel sorry for when you see him trying to do something as simple as light a cigarette and you are made to realize that his life went down the sewer in childhood just as sure as the game ball did; but, at the same time, you see how he could be cunning when boxed in and scary when his suffering eyes stare through the person he is looking at. No wonder his nervous wife had such mixed feelings about him. Robbins gave a very moving performance, one that played to getting at his character rather than playing to the camera. It was the best performance in the film and his best career performance so far, the only one where the character credibly remained transfixed in two worlds. Kevin Bacon had the easiest part to play, but did it so effortlessly that it might be easy to overlook how good he was as a regular-guy cop who didn’t even know he was also compromised by his bad childhood experience and is living an unfulfilled life through his silence about the past. Even the supporting cast members gave rich performances in mostly nominal parts that kept the brooding mood of this so-called modern-day Greek tragedy humming along. It was directed by Clint in his customary style of one or two takes, and the finished product had the simple no frills look as if it were created by a Zen disciple. The ploy that bothered me the most, was that running cellphone non-conversation throughout between the stammering apologetic Bacon and his mute wife–artificially compared to a murder witness. It was too overused to be effective, as she was just a plot device and was never made to seem real. The other wives were also props used as martyrs to their violently torn hubbies, as they seemed to have no effect to stem the ongoing violence and comfort their men with a search for the truth. I doubt if Clint had something lyrical or mythic to say about violence that puts it in a class with the ancient Greek myths, but if you judge it as a film that tells a good cinematic story then you might find it an above average work that sparkles as a film that could be both posing as a work of art yet one that is also appealing in its common man view to the multiplex crowd. What it leaves us hanging on, is what exactly does Clint want us to take away about revenge. Is Dave’s revenge ok because his manhood was taken away? Is Jimmy’s revenge wrong only because he got the wrong man? Clint leaves things hazy, as if the viewer must either look down at the Mystic River to find from their reflections deeper answers or above to the unseen avenging God for more simplistic answers. By the conclusion I took it to mean that Clint had some serious problems with revenge and how it could be misused, but couldn’t say that revenge wasn’t also necessary for someone to regain their manhood. The storytelling was better than the so-called anti-violence message, probably because of the explicit violence unleashed. Violence still has such a strong appeal to mankind’s emotions, and I’m not quite sure if Clint fully knows how to deal with that.


REVIEWED ON 10/17/2003 GRADE: B +