Mystic River (2003) / Drama-Mystery

MPAA Rated: R for language and violence
Running time:
138 min.

Cast: Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon, Laurence Fishburne, Marcia Gay Harden, Laura Linney, Thomas Guiry, Spencer Treat Clark, Kevin Chapman, Emmy Rossum
Director: Clint Eastwood
Screenplay: Brian Helgeland (based on the novel by Dennis Lehane)
Review published March 29, 2011

Clint Eastwood (Blood Work, Space Cowboys) directs the Brian Helgeland (A Knight's Tale, Payback) adaptation of the popular Dennis Lehane novel of the same name revolving around the build-up of mystery surrounding the assault and apparent vicious murder of a 19-year-old woman (Rossum, The Day After Tomorrow) in her predominantly Irish working-class neighborhood in Boston.  The woman in question is Katie, the eldest daughter of Jimmy Markum (Penn, I Am Sam), a store owner with a checkered past.  Jimmy wants to beat the homicide detectives, one of whom is a childhood friend named Sean Devine (Bacon, Hollow Man), to the punch and avenge Katie's murder himself.  Meanwhile, Jimmy and Sean's other childhood friend, Dave Boyle (Robbins, The Truth About Charlie), who once suffered a highly traumatizing kidnapping and prolonged sexual assault, looks like he might know more about what went on that night than he initially lets on.

More of a character study about how the past greatly affects the present and how a neighborhood is entrenched by the intertwined lives of the people that inhabit it, Mystic River uses its mystery premise to bring forth further explorations into how chain reactions are set off by momentary incidents that shape how the rest of one's life might go, and the ripples of those events effect changes in the lives of others. sometimes in cyclical fashion.  It's a film about decisions and consequences, about regional dynamics, family histories, and destinies that have roots that run so deep that they don't allow much room to move from the place where the seed is planted.  And it's how violence begets violence, and how deep, dark secrets can envelop, consume and spit out its holders.

Above and beyond the excellent direction by Clint Eastwood, and the beautifully somber and serene cinematography by Tom Stern, Mystic River is truly an actor's showcase above all else, with a particularly strong performance by Sean Penn as the grieving father searching for answers, and a heartbreaking portrayal of a man who has been perpetually adrift since his boyhood had been snatched away by two men set on doing evil to him.  Both actors would win Oscars for their respective roles.

A dynamic supporting cast that includes Kevin Bacon and Laurence Fishburne (The Matrix Reloaded, Biker Boyz) as the homicide detectives, one objective and one tied in too close, bolsters the depth, as well as a richly nuanced performance by Marcia Gay Harden (Gaudi Afternoon, Meet Joe Black) as the wife struggling between standing by her man and the realization that the man she married may be consumed by the dormant inner demons that have begun to manifest.  With such high profile actors around him, almost forgotten is the terrific work by Thomas Guiry (U-571, The Sandlot) as Katie's anguished fiancée, Brendan.

The performances so strong, the direction so spot on, and the themes so rich, that Mystic River suffers by comparison through the fact that it falls into the mystery genre, and as such, there are contrivances and manipulations inherent in the story twists that do eventually take place.  Consequently, just when the storyline's pace should reach a crescendo with the revelatory final scenes, it loses some of its ability to captivate, as the story shifts awkwardly from the characters and their backgrounds to the somewhat gimmicky plot that is rooted underneath. 

All isn't lost, as Helgeland and Eastwood pick it back up again with an extended epilogue that brings things back to the characters and their destinies again, but there's still the nag that comes with the feeling that the climax could have had more emotional impact had all the cards been shown from the outset and we can feel the impact of watching the tragedy for its characters unfold naturally.

As a mystery, Mystic River is standard, but it's for the thematic resonance underneath that the film would garner critical acclaim and score Oscar nominations aplenty (including Best Picture).  A rich portrayal of a community whose individuals are like tributaries to the river, each starting out trying to form their own paths, only to discover they are all going the same way, and collectively provide the driving force of the whole, until one can't be distinguished from the other anymore.  Sins buried and washed clean.

 Qwipster's rating:

©2011 Vince Leo