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Mystic River   B+

Warner Bros. Pictures

Year Released: 2003
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Clint Eastwood
Writer: Brian Helgeland (based on the novel by Dennis Lehane)
Cast: Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon, Laurence Fishburne, Marcia Gay Harden, Sarah Silverman, Laura Linney, Emmy Rossum.

Review by Rob Vaux

Clint Eastwood directed 17 movies before they finally gave him the Oscar for Unforgiven. Contrast that with other actor-directors like Kevin Costner (who won on his first try), Robert Redford (first), and Mel Gibson (second). The Academy treated them like precocious children, praising their slightest behind-the-camera achievements as legacies for the ages. Eastwood, on the other hand, honed his skills in relative obscurity, his growing body of work overshadowed by its perceived frivolity. Only after two decades did people finally recognize that he was more than an actor. And though his latter-day efforts have stumbled badly, his best films hold up against anything ever put on-screen.

Mystic River isn't quite Unforgiven, but it's fine work nonetheless, a strong and memorable reminder that the "director" half of Eastwood's resume isn't just ego. Working from a script by Brian Helgeland (based on the book by Dennis Lehane), it justly matches his penchant for minimalism with a powerfully understated story. It also furthers Unforgiven's themes of traumatic violence, and how rage can too often turn against those who wield it. At its center is a pair of crimes, separated by 30 years, that take place within the same working-class Boston neighborhood. The first involves a trio of boys, approached by two men wearing badges who take one of them for a ride. The implications of his abduction still haunt the threesome well into adulthood. Dave (Tim Robbins), the long-ago victim, presents a sad and beaten front to hide his festering pain. Jimmy (Sean Penn), the thug of the bunch, did time in prison but has since managed to build a respectable life despite his murderous temper. Sean (Kevin Bacon), perhaps the most well-adjusted, has found solace as a policeman with a smart and understanding partner (Laurence Fishburne). Then Jimmy's daughter is found dead, and Sean gets the call, reuniting him with his old childhood friends and exposing how many of their injuries still linger.

For all the talk about the deeper issues (and they are indeed effective), the film works best as a police procedural. Eastwood's naturalistic approach meshes well with the no-nonsense detective work, as Bacon and Fishburne sift through the case in an effort to find the girl's killer. The plausibility of their efforts -- matched with classic mystery lovers' fascination -- reminds us how ludicrous most detective movies can be, as well as what quiet pleasures we've missed amid the car chases and three-days-to-retirement theatrics. As a simple crime drama, Mystic River raises the bar demonstrably.

The subtler issues fare less well, but only slightly, and Eastwood brings them out with undeniable craftsmanship. Mystic River is at heart a meditation on masculinity, and how the desire for empowerment can become self-destructive. Dave and Jimmy hide raging animals inside, the latter more open about it but less in control. Sean has retreated behind a facade of professionalism, so much so that he can no longer communicate effectively (he holds telephone conversations with his ex-wife wherein she doesn't say a word). He and Jimmy both wonder how things might have been had they been selected by those predatory men instead of Dave. As an actor, Eastwood mastered the art of the unspoken, conveying volumes with a nod or a raised eyebrow. Here, it gives him the ability to play each man's pain just right, granting them the voice to reveal themselves without spilling over the top. His players are expectedly superb (including the women -- Marcia Gay Harden as Dave's fragile wife and Laura Linney as Jimmy's sterner mate), and his no-fuss directing style keeps the focus on the characters rather than the cinematic tools presenting them to us. The result has real strength, rendering a thoughtful look at damaged men whose demons are all the more terrifying for their silence.

Mystic River's missteps are small -- readily forgivable -- and easy to understand given Eastwood's technique. At times the camera lingers longer than it should, drawing out scenes which ought to move with more urgency. The final coda falls a little flat, especially considering the power of the previous scenes, and the Boston setting (filmed on location) comes across as a trifle broad. In addition, Eastwood is still an actor and as such is prone to giving the performers too much leash. But the slow pacing also contributes immeasurably to the mood, and if he indulges the cast, at least it's a cast worthy of being indulged. As to the ending... misplayed though it is, its ambiguity is a welcome change from the rubber hammers we've come to expect. Mystic River may only be "pretty good," but thanks to Eastwood, it's a reminder of how great "pretty good" should be.

Review published 10.20.2003.

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