Mystic River

Mystic RiverCast:
Sean Penn as Jimmy Markum
Tim Robbins as Dave Boyle
Kevin Bacon as Sean Devine
Laurence Fishburne as Whitey Powers
Marcia Gay Harden as Celeste Boyle
Laura Linney as Annabeth Markum
Tom Guiry as Brendan Harris
Kevin Chapman as Val Savage
Adam Nelson as Nick Savage
Emmy Rossum as Katie
Spencer Treat Clark as Silent Ray

Story:
Jimmy, Sean and Dave were the best of friends when they were younger, but they part ways after something bad happens to Dave, which leaves them all scarred. Decades later, they are all leading very different lives, but when Jimmy’s daughter turns up dead, Sean-now a police detective-is put in charge of the investigation. Having returned home on the same night as the murder covered in blood, the troubled Dave quickly becomes the prime suspect, and Jimmy, accompanied by his gang of street thugs, begins his own vigilante hunt for the killer. The question is whether their earlier friendship can withstand the rigors of murder, death and betrayal.

What Worked:
Based on the novel by Dennis Lehane, Mystic River is an intriguing crime drama that delves into the meanings of friendship and community, while dealing with rather difficult issues that test both to their limit. Over the course of Sean’s lawful investigation and Jimmy’s ruthless witch-hunt, secrets come out between the friends, unveiling the mysteries of the decades they spent apart. Essentially, the movie is three stories in one as the three grown-up friends deal with the murder and their resulting suspicions.

Clint Eastwood’s 24th film as a director has one of the best casts he has ever managed to pull together, and though he doesn’t appear in the film himself, he manages to pull some amazing performances out of all of them.

Surprisingly, Tim Robbins gives the most jaw-dropping performance as the sensitive, hulking Dave, a character that couldn’t be more different from the arrogant and assertive types that he usually plays. Through most of the film, Robbins’, presumably from his loss of innocence, but he also displays moments of rage and confusion and even perfect clarity at times, giving his character much more depth and dimension than the other two male roles.

Granted, Sean Penn’s portrayal of the street tough Jimmy, trying to leave his criminal life behind him and turn over a new leaf, will probably get the most attention, since it’s also a complex and emotive role with many highs and lows. Sadly, his performance early in the film tends to be marred by overacting, particularly when he learns of his daughter’s murder. While the transition he goes through over the course of the film is mesmerizing, parts of it just seemed false.

Kevin Bacon also gives a notable performance, but neither he nor Penn play characters too different from roles they have done in the past. Like her Academy Award winning role in Pollack, Marcia Gay Harden does best when playing off the actors’ strong performances, and she’s great as Dave’s neurotic and suspicious wife. Likewise, newcomer Tom Guiry shines as the boyfriend of the murdered girl, a role that will likely get ignored, but is particularly noteworthy for the amount of depth he brings to it.

The interaction between these fabulous, yet often underrated, actors makes up the crux of the film’s riveting story. Those who enjoyed Christopher Nolan’s remake of Insomnia will enjoy the police procedural part of the film as Bacon and Laurence Fishburne try to find the killer, but they’ll also enjoy the complex relationships that surround the investigation.

The way that Eastwood beautifully captures the Boston setting makes the movie even more somber and distinctive, creating the perfect background for this interesting story, much like some of Spike Lee’s better movies.

What Didn’t Work:
The pacing of the movie is its biggest drawback, as it’s rather slow and plodding, taking far too long for the three stories to converge into a coherent resolution. Most of the movie feels like a better-than-average episode of “Law and Order”, and things only start to get interesting about halfway through.

Mystic River lacks the most important part of what makes high drama work: you rarely feel anything for these characters. Tim Robbins’ character is the only one who seems worthy of any sympathy whatsoever. Despite the strong performances, you leave this movie caring little about most of them. With the amount of emotions ably portrayed on the screen, those emotions should carry over to the viewer, and sadly, they don’t.

Some of this might be due to Brian Helgeland’s competent but flat screenplay. Presumably much of the dialogue is taken directly from the novel. While it is realistic enough to set up the characters and their environment, the words seem like they would read better than they sound when spoken with such thick Boston accents. (Hearing “Morpheus” as a tough cop with Fishburne’s awkward attempts at an accent is amusing beyond words.) That said, the actors seem like actors rather than real people. Unlike stronger recent dramas such as In the Bedroom and The Deep End, there are few passages where one can just sit back and enjoy the mood of the scenes and the words being spoken; it’s a greater credit to the actors’ that the movie doesn’t fall flat on its face at times.

The soundtrack, also composed by Eastwood, is pleasant, but simple and fairly unimpressive, using a single theme and then developing a few variations depending on the mood. Having a professional composer supplying the background music could have helped instill some of the missing emotion, much like Phillip Glass’ music did in The Hours.

Mystic River isn’t much of a “thriller” either. There is very little tension or suspense until the climactic scene where the pieces fall together. Even that is short-lived, as the aftermath and epilogue ultimately disappoint, leaving far too much up to the viewer’s interpretation. As a murder mystery, it also falters, because a distinct clue to the identity of the killer(s) is given early in the movie that is overlooked by the detectives for far too long. Less red herrings and more hard facts would have made the movie work better.

There have been plenty of movies that have walked upon similar ground-examining friendship and community and how it is affected by adversity-and this one pales in comparison to movies such as Sleepers or Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam, both of which are more consistently entertaining. Parts of the plot also seemed extraneous and needlessly obtuse, such as the subplot involving Sean’s wife who left him with their kids but calls him up randomly while remaining silent on the other end of the line. Scenes like these are barely worthy of David Lynch.

Bottom Line:
Mystic River is an interesting character study, and while the police procedural aspects are spot-on, the movies tries too hard to be a drama, a thriller and a murder mystery, without really excelling at any of them. Still, it is a well-made film, far surpassing Eastwood’s previous effort, the painful Bloodwork, but for the most part, it’s rather unspectacular. If you’re into movies that leave a lot open for interpretation, then you’ll love this. If not, the only thing that saves it from being an entirely bland experience are the career-defining performances and the few poignant and thought-provoking moments that will stay with you well after seeing the film.

Mystic River opens in the Top 10 U.S. markets on Wednesday, and then expands nationwide on Wednesday, October 15th, 2003.

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