“Mystic River” is a character-driven murder mystery that keeps us guessing in more ways than one. The celluloid version of Dennis Lehane’s downbeat novel throws us onto the streets of Boston in search of a young girl’s killer. However, the true suspense behind “Mystic River” involves whether director Clint Eastwood will deliver a classic (ala 1992’s “Unforgiven”), or one of his passive, mediocre throwaways (“The Rookie,” “Blood Work”).
Eastwood’s efficient, economic approach to filmmaking is as legendary as his scowl (he’s the antithesis of an impassioned romantic like Francis Ford Coppola in “Apocalypse Now” mode). While it’s easy to admire his by-the-numbers reliability, one sometimes gets the impression that Eastwood-the-director is on auto- pilot. Sure, he gets his movies in on time and under budget, but it would take a pretty big microscope to find any energy in 1997’s anemic “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.”
“Mystic River,” however, is a sprawling story that benefits from Eastwood’s stripped-down approach. There are no jive talking Tarantino exchanges here, and no crowd-pleasing pyrotechnics. This allows the director to focus on solid acting to guide his grim, complex story of loss and retribution to a haunting, tragic crescendo. This time around, we’re talking A-List Eastwood.
“Mystic River” is introduced by a long tracking shot through the low-rent side of Boston. Squawking seagulls and honking cars compete for a listener’s attention, while shirts and pants pinned to clotheslines stretch between houses like ornamental streamers at a community party. Yet, this is one bleak party. You can almost see the paint peel from the wall behind two men talking baseball on a rickety porch.
We’re hastily introduced to three kids playing street hockey in front of these scrubby homes. Jimmy, Dave, and Sean are buddies who stop to etch their names in a wet block of cement before two intimidating, trench coat wearing older men approach them from a nearby car. Posing as a cop, one of the strangers leads Dave into the vehicle and whisks the lad away. Dave’s experience with the men is not pretty. For four days, the youth is abused by these covert pedophiles in a dark, dingy basement that looks like the Gimp’s kinky hideaway from “Pulp Fiction,” before he escapes their grimy grasp.
Flash forward to adulthood. Hoodlum Jimmy (Sean Penn) poses as a benign grocery store owner, Sean (Kevin Bacon) is a cop, and Dave (Tim Robbins) is a zombified husk of a man, still reeling from the misdeeds endured so many years ago. Since Dave’s abduction, the trio
has disbanded, with Jimmy and Sean plagued by survivor’s guilt, while Dave wanders the streets like something out of a George Romero film.
When Jimmy’s teenaged daughter is murdered, however, their lives intersect once again. In a jarring scene, Jimmy attends a younger daughter’s first communion at church, while cop-on-the-case Sean and police sidekick Whitey (Lawrence Fishburn) go about the grueling task of finding and identifying the body of the gangster’s firstborn. Outside the chapel’s front steps, Jimmy is alerted to his older child’s murder, goes understandably ballistic, and vows revenge.
The neighborhood’s emotional turmoil intensifies with news that basket-case Dave saw the girl shortly before her demise, and had blood on his hands upon returning home that night.
His wife (Marcia Gay Harden) is understandably concerned at her husband’s injured palm, and not quite convinced of Dave’s story that a mugger’s assault caused the gash. As waves of fear and paranoia surge over her, Harden appears as a dazed deer staring into headlights.
Is Dave the killer? Will Sean crack the case? And how far is Jimmy willing to go, to quench his mad-dog lust for revenge?
“Mystic River” sounds like a routine police procedural, and there’s plenty of expository dialogue peppering the film’s leisurely pacing. Scenes of Sean and Whitey questioning subjects, handing out cards, and requesting, “If you think of anything, give us a call,” are as familiar as .357 Magnums in a Dirty Harry film. What isn’t familiar here – especially when compared to the Joel Silver hybrid of cartoonishly violent cop outings – is the restrained level of action. In fact, “Mystic River” is an entirely character-centered event, with
Eastwood’s actors earning their keep. Unlike the “Matrix” or recent “Star Wars” episodes, where blue screens and digital technology replace humanity, the only special effect in
“Mystic River” is its parade of painful revelations, confrontations, and investigations. Sean Penn outdoes himself as Jimmy, sporting the graying temples and prison tattoos of a rebel con made older and
wiser by time in the clink. Sean and Whitey can sense Jimmy’s wiry edginess, wary that this tiger is ready to pounce.
“The tension in his shoulders,” observes Whitey as the anguished father leaves a Q & A session, “that’s from prison.” It’s clear that these law enforcers know their query.
Meanwhile, Tim Robbins plays Dave as a damaged man stumbling through life in a perpetual daze. Something’s been taken from him, and the battery is almost dead. It’s a heartbreaking performance.
“Mystic River” echoes Eastwood’s previous exploration of true-life violence, “Unforgiven,” by tracing how death and depravity stain one’s life for generations, leaving seeds to take root in each branch of a tainted family tree. “Mystic Rivers’”finale, in which some characters find solace, some are marked for future doom, and others coldly justify the violations that have gone before, is as gripping and unsparing as movies get. Less kinetic than any of Eastwood’s early spaghetti westerns, the world of “Mystic River” would put The Man With No Name into a coma. Even so, it’s a world far more disturbing than the land of Leone, even without the blood, guts, and