“Mystic River” is a major American motion picture, an overpowering piece of work that involves some of the most basic human emotions: love, hate, fear, revenge, despair. Directed by Clint Eastwood with absolute confidence and remarkable control, it owes both its success and its significance to the way it seamlessly unites elements that are difficult to pull off on their own, much less together.
“Mystic River” is simultaneously an intricate and gripping crime story that involves child molestation and murder and a thoughtful and disturbing emotional drama about the nightmarish past sending destructive tentacles into the present. Instead of clashing, these elements reinforce each other every step of the way.
This is a major studio release that deals with the kind of dark and disconcerting material Hollywood usually tries to avoid. It’s a star vehicle that provides memorable roles for half a dozen major players (Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon, Laurence Fishburne, Marcia Gay Harden, Laura Linney) yet also takes pains to cast even the smallest speaking parts with care.
It’s got both impeccable source material (Dennis Lehane’s persuasive bestseller) and a spare and impressive adaptation by Brian Helgeland that makes the difficult work of finding the film inside the book look simple and inevitable. And despite a respect for language that extends to the use of key dialogue from the book, “Mystic River” is faultlessly cinematic and a model of classic directorial style.
Best of all, “Mystic River” has Eastwood, an unflappable old master invigorated by the challenges inherent in the material. He’s dealing with themes of masculinity and violence that have concerned him for decades, with emotions he understands from the inside, and venturing into deeper and murkier emotional currents than he’s ever attempted before. What results is also Eastwood’s best direction since “Unforgiven” and arguably the best, most mature work of his career.
Based on a novel
Everything starts with Lehane’s strong and economically written book, a breakthrough stand-alone novel coming after a series of five private-eye books. “I was living with ‘Mystic River’ for 10 years before I wrote it,” the author told Publishers Weekly, and that undoubtedly accounts for the subtlety and intricacy of its psychology, the way it gets to more emotion than is usual for a police procedural.
Set in a hard world where “the worst things did, in fact, sometimes happen,” Lehane’s is a story that understands life’s fatal randomness, that explores how misplaced suspicions, unresolved hatreds, missed opportunities and shattering misunderstandings can color already complex situations in which no one is really innocent and everyone lives with his or her own complicity.
“Mystic River” is also a story, both on the page and on the screen, with an exact sense of place. Its aura of been-there atmosphere centers on the Boston neighborhood of East Buckingham where the film was shot, a working-class area, close by the Mystic River, also known as the Flats. “The Flats,” Lehane wrote, “were nothing but a small town wrapped within a big city.”
The drama begins with a critical extended flashback, set a quarter of a century in the past, a lazy late afternoon moment that finds 11-year-olds Dave, Sean and Jimmy playing street hockey on a deserted stretch of pavement.
But, as moodily captured by cinematographer Tom Stern, even the most innocent-seeming city moments have an intangible edge of menace about them. A car pulls up, a man presenting himself as a police officer gets out and rousts the boys for a minor infraction. Dave is ordered into the car and, suddenly, things get very dark very fast. “Ever think,” Jimmy is to say decades later, “how one little choice can change a person’s life?” Can change, it turns out, everyone’s life.
In an instant, it is 25 years later and the boys, still in Boston but no longer close (“now it’s just hello around the neighborhood”), are adults with families, responsibilities. Dave (Robbins), inevitably, is the one the past has affected most. Still living in the area though married to the timid Celeste (Harden) and with a son of his own, Dave Boyle has a sense of darkness and sadness around him that is so deep it seems to have swallowed the boy we saw without a trace. Of all the actors, Robbins has changed himself most for this role, taking on a strong Boston accent and changing his usual confident body language to play a haunted, interior man who’s forever somewhere else in his mind.
Work, at least, has taken Sean Devine (Bacon) a little further away. He’s become a “statie,” a homicide detective working for the Massachusetts State Police, but he too has personal problems. Six months ago, his wife left; his only contact with her are random telephone interludes during which she calls, stays on the line but won’t speak.
The role of Sean is the least showy of the three major characters, and it is the one most cut down from the novel, but it is essential as an anchor for the plot and for the audience to hold on to. Bacon does an expert job getting us involved in the critical choices and decisions of, in Lehane’s words, “a guy the world has always worked for.”
Sean is reluctantly pulled back to the old neighborhood and his boyhood experiences when he and his partner Whitey (Fishburne ) are assigned to investigate a crime in East Buckingham. It’s a murder connected to the third of the boyhood pals, Jimmy Markum, a murder that will draw all three men closer together in unexpected and ultimately horrific ways.
As played by Penn, Jimmy is the inevitable center of the story. Even as a child, Lehane writes, “if he was aware there were rules -- in the subway, on the streets, in a movie theater -- he never showed it,” and that making-your-own-law quality still defines him though he’s now the twice-married father of three daughters who owns a neighborhood convenience store called the Cottage Market.
With a look that could pass through steel, a temper like the devil’s wrath and the hawk-like presence of a predator, Penn’s Jimmy sits astride his world like a god of vengeance, terrifying even in repose. When he’s not in repose, you’d better just get the hell out of the way.
Probably no actor in America has access to the deep reserves of fury as well the skill to use them as Penn, and his primordial anger and pain in this film will raise the hairs on the back of your neck.
Yet it is Penn’s gift to also illuminate his character’s distraught, remorseful sides, and not letting us forget how completely human Jimmy is makes him so much the scarier.
The other above-the-line actors -- Harden as the mouse-like Celeste, Fishburne as the unrelenting detective and especially Linney as Jimmy’s implacable wife Annabeth -- are equally impressive, as is Eli Wallach in a juicy unbilled cameo as a liquor store owner.
But “Mystic River,” exactly cast by Phyllis Huffman, is also a film in which you notice how even the actors in smaller roles are just right, people like Emmy Rossum as Jimmy’s daughter Katie; Susan Willis as an elderly key witness; and Kevin Chapman as Val Savage, one of a trio of brothers known around the neighborhood, not without reason, as “legends of psychosis.”
Eastwood shows restraint
If Eastwood had a watchword for this film, as with much of his best work, it was restraint at the service of an overpowering story. This is a director who understands that the stronger the passions, the more useful a kind of minimalism is in conveying them, who knows that paring something down can make a story more emotional, more intense than it would otherwise be.
This is also a director who knows not only just what he wants but how to achieve it and whose sureness with this material, down to knowing exactly how long he wants editor Joel Cox to stay on a given shot, seems to increase as the story progresses.
Cox, like many of Eastwood’s team, has been with him for many years. Similarly, director of photography Stern, who has created a beautifully subdued, muted look that gives color the feeling tone of black and white, has been a gaffer or chief lighting technician on a number of Eastwood films, most notably those shot by Bruce Surtees, nicknamed “The Prince of Darkness” for his similar love of shadowy looks.
It’s this combination of Eastwood’s emphasis on keeping his crew together from project to project and his ability to make his films free of studio interference that has allowed the director the kind of artistic control we usually associate with independent films.
“Mystic River’s” concern with violence and its aftermath, with how men behave under stress, make this very much an Eastwood film, one that is helped by the extent to which he’s at home with this kind of material. The furtive recesses of the human soul neither attract or repel him, he neither flees from nor celebrates the evil that men do. This unblinking attitude in the face of deep horror and despair gives “Mystic River” an almost elegant somberness of tone.
But Eastwood has not just summed up his career with “Mystic River,” he has gone further. He has, to an unprecedented extent, used one of his violent films to deal extensively with the pain and the anguish that can cluster around ordinary lives and ordinary situations like marriage, divorce and family. Eastwood seems more interested in character and psychology than ever before, more compelled to investigate what can happen when malignancy festers among otherwise everyday people.
The mastery -- and there really is no other word for it -- Eastwood demonstrates in this, the 24th feature he’s directed, was not easily won and did not come at the end of an unbroken string of triumphs. But there can be no doubt that it’s here. “It’s as good as I can do,” the director said in a quiet moment before the film was shown at Cannes, but it’s more than that. It’s as good as anybody can do.
MPAA rating: R, for language and violence
Times guidelines: The violence is more implied than graphic, but the film’s themes and topics are disturbing.
Sean Penn...Jimmy Markum
Tim Robbins...Dave Boyle
Kevin Bacon...Sean Devine
Laurence Fishburne...Whitey Powers
Marcia Gay Harden...Celeste Boyle
Laura Linney...Annabeth Markum
Warner Bros. presents, in association with Village Roadshow and NPV Entertainment, a Malpaso production, released by Warner Bros. Director Clint Eastwood. Producers Robert Lorenz, Judie G. Holt, Clint Eastwood. Executive producer Bruce Berman. Screenplay by Brian Helgeland, based on the novel by Dennis Lehane. Cinematographer Tom Stern. Editor Joel Cox. Costume designer Deborah Hopper. Music Clint Eastwood. Production designer Henry Bumstead. Art director Jack G. Taylor Jr. Set decorator Richard Goddard. Running time: 2 hour, 18 minutes. Exclusively at the AMC Century 14, Century City, (310) 289-4262; Pacific’s the Grove, 189 the Grove Drive, L.A. (323) 692-0829; and Edwards Big Newport 6, 300 Newport Center Drive, East, Newport Beach, (800) FANDANGO #150; opens Oct. 15 in additional theaters.