review by KJ
Doughton, 17 October 2003
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.
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.
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?
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
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
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.
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
River’s 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 guns.
Marci Gay Harden
R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
parent or adult