Mystic River (2003, Clint Eastwood)
Mystic River doesn’t feel like a Clint Eastwood movie. Maybe because we’re used to seeing him directing himself, maybe because it’s set in Boston rather than the West–although he has done plenty of films that don’t fit those parameters, we still expect him to. Either way, I may go out on a limb and say that this film is up there with Unforgiven as one of his best works.
Three childhood friends are playing street hockey one day when a car pulls up and a man gets out to yell at them. Posing as a cop, he asks each of the boys where he lives, and then puts Dave, the shyest of the boys, in the back of his car. Jimmy and Sean watch Dave drive away, unable to do anything. Dave escapes from the men four days later.
This is only the beginning of this movie, a powerful exploration of the ways guilt over things long past can still shape our lives. Jimmy (Sean Penn) is a father of three who has done prison time and buried one wife. When his oldest daughter turns up missing, Sean (Kevin Bacon), now a Massachusetts police officer, is assigned to the case. Dave (Tim Robbins) still lives in the old neighborhood, near Jimmy, and is married to Jimmy’s second wife’s cousin, Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden). What Sean and Jimmy don’t know is that the night of Katie’s disappearance, Dave came home with his hands covered in blood.
Much like last year’s The Hours, which featured three of the best actresses of our time, this movie is an actor’s dream. I’d heard plenty of hype about Sean Penn’s performance, which was subtly amazing, but not nearly enough about Tim Robbins, who goes from pitiful to frightening in the blink of an eye, and Kevin Bacon, who managed to make me forget he was Kevin Bacon. The focus of the film drifts away from Bacon, which is a crime because his subplot–his wife has left him and calls him to sit silently on the phone while he fumbles for words–is utterly compelling, and when it returns at the end, the lack of attention given it makes the resolution unconvincing. Marcia Gay Harden is (as usual) brilliant as the frightened Celeste, managing to convey with her eyes that there may be more between her and Jimmy than meets the eye. Laura Linney, as Jimmy’s second wife Annabeth, is the weaker spot in a stellar cast, and Laurence Fishburne is relegated to a bit part as Sean’s partner.
Screenwriter Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential, A Knight’s Tale) has once again made me wonder why he can write such brilliant stuff for others to direct, and leave such gaping holes in the scripts he directs (The Order, anyone? Didn’t think so) and the photography was a beautiful love letter to a not-so-beautiful area. Though on the surface a murder mystery, Mystic River’s power lies not in the whodunit, but in the nuances of these wounded men’s psyches, and the tiny details of their lives and how their shared past returned to haunt them. The “What if”‘s will haunt you too. This film has stayed with me for days. It’s been out for a while now, but has just moved to Landmark’s Mayan theater, so go see it already if you haven’t.