“No more lies, no more secrets.” So says Dave Boyle to his childhood friend Jimmy Markham on the pier of the aptly titled Mystic River. If only life were that simple. But in the small New England town where both reside, secrets and lies complicate things to the extreme, defining relationships, defining the community, and defining the past, present, and future. Directed by the legendary Clint Eastwood, the man behind such gems as “Unforgiven” and Bird, comes “Mystic River,” a potboiler of a thriller: Three boys’ lives become forever altered when one of them is abducted and molested and then once again, twenty five years later, when one of their children is brutally murdered. Methodical, riveting and emotionally charged; it’s a story of lost innocence and a reminder that the past is not something that can easily be suppressed or forgotten.
In a rough neighborhood just outside of Boston, three kids play a friendly game of stickball on the streets of East Buckingham. After losing their only ball down a drainpipe, the kids stumble upon a newly laid cement strip on the sidewalk. Instinctively, they carve their names in it. First, there’s Jimmy, then Sean, followed by Dave. But before Dave can finish his name, they are interrupted by car with two strange men inside. The men claim to be police officers and question their juvenile antics, so much so that they persuade Dave to hop inside the car to report the behavior to his mother. As the car speeds off, Jimmy and Sean are left all alone. And although Dave escapes his abductors after four days, the three boys are never able to rekindle their friendship.
Fast forward twenty-five years later. Jimmy manages a local thrift store and Sean is a local law enforcement officer. On a fateful night, Jimmy’s 19 year-old daughter Katie is brutally murdered. Among the leading suspects are Dave Boyle, who harbors a variety of secrets and an abusive past, and Brendan Harris, the secret boyfriend who was to elope with Katie the day after her murder. Leading the investigation are Sean Devine and Whitey Powers, two homicide detectives intensely dedicated to solving the crime; however, Jimmy’s grief is so intense that he decides to lead an investigation of his own, utilizing the persuasive skills of the notorious Savage brothers. As the two groups pursue their leads in the case, it becomes clear that there is only one answer, an answer that will impact them all forever.
Based on the novel by Massachusetts native Dennis Lehane and adapted to screen by Brian Helgeland, “Mystic River” is a slow moving, yet intensely gripping mystery. It’s about love, loyalty, and family. But hidden in the shadows and not far out of reach lurk vengeance, violence, and betrayal. Carefully navigating the right balance between the layers is director Eastwood, known for his restrained style and uncanny ability to capture subtlety over complexity. Eastwood eloquently displays the neuroses of a blue-collar town blanketed in sadness. In fact, it’s so hollow and downbeat, one could argue that the leading character in the film was the town itself in its cold and melancholy glory.
Fortunately, however, the film emphasizes character turmoil over atmosphere and is upheld by a powerful performance from Sean Penn. Penn is superb as Jimmy Markham, the ex-con who is pulled back into his bully-like ways. Stricken with tremendous grief over the loss of his daughter Katie, Penn quietly quantifies that grief into rage and revenge right before our eyes. For, without Penn onscreen, the film loses much of its punch, settling into an uneventful, yet all too comfortable place. I wasn’t as moved by Tim Robbins’ Dave Boyle, who undergoes a different kind of inner turmoil – he’s been leading a dual life following the abduction. Fighting off the demons of his past, he draws an unspoken amount of anger and fear from everyone including his wife. And from the audience, he draws a certain amount of pity. You know he has a lifetime’s worth of agony pent up inside, but it never seemed like it was communicated passionately. Instead, his reactions and outbursts come across as flat and monotone.
The two leading men are joined by a terrific supporting team in Kevin Bacon and Laurence Fishburne. In particular, I was impressed by Fishburne’s Whitey Powers, a very sophisticated, self-assured investigator who eagerly chomps at the bit to resolve the case efficiently only to have his reasoning backfire. And both Marcia Gay Harding and Laura Linney are genuine in their loyalty towards their husbands (as expected), despite any wrongdoings. But the interesting thing to watch among all the characters is the dynamic in emotions. In other words, you really can sense the tension between Jimmy and Dave, between Celeste and Dave, Dave and Whitey, Jimmy and Sean – it’s Eastwood’s subtle techniques that put these on display.
Yet, despite the intriguing mystery and the caliber of acting talent, I was a little disappointed. Perhaps it was the Boston accent by Tim Robbins’ Dave Boyle that was slightly distracting or the distant communication between Sean and his ex-wife that was just plain weird. Maybe it was the story that seemed to falter in the end, losing momentum and resolving things too simplistically? It’s not really a complaint. I was just anticipating a stronger climax, one that revealed more about the three main characters and had a more complex or logical reasoning to Katie’s murder. Furthermore, it was hard to decipher the motives of certain characters, particularly in the case of Celeste and Annabeth, the wives of Dave and Jimmy. And the so-called “moment of the film” where Kevin Bacon’s character points his finger in trigger like fashion at Sean Penn seemed anti-climactic, almost weightless.
Don’t get me wrong. “Mystic River” is indeed a solid outing by Eastwood with very strong performances from Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon, and Laurence Fishburne. I just don’t believe it’s Eastwood’s finest. Though the film ends with a certain amount of closure, there is a little too much emptiness left behind. It’s haunting and provocative, but there is just too much guilt and hostility bottled up inside each of these characters that remains silent and unresolved. It’s easy to kick these things under the carpet and cleanse them in the Mystic River, but it’s more difficult to unveil the secrets of the heart and allow the lies to surface.
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