The first thing you notice in Mystic River is that the Warner Brothers and Village Roadshow logos are in black and white, and accompanied by dead silence. The black and white, to me, indicated a throwback to an earlier time in cinema, when genre pictures like crime dramas and murder mysteries were multi-layered with psychological ramifications and complicated motives. The silence sent a louder message: shut up and pay attention. (Isn't it strange, how quiet an audience can get when there's no sound?)
The film then proceeds into a prologue that is terrifying in its mere subtlety. Jimmy, Sean, and Dave are three nice Irish kids who live in a Boston suburb. One quiet afternoon, between rounds of street hockey, they're caught scrawling their names in wet cement by a man who seems to be a cop. He intimidates them, puts Dave in his car, and drives away. The man is not a cop, but a pedophile, and Dave is kept and abused for four days before escaping (as played out in a riveting series of fade-outs).
Thirty years later, the three men still reside in Boston. Jimmy (Sean Penn), an ex-con, runs a corner store; Sean (Kevin Bacon) is a detective for the State Police; Dave (Tim Robbins), who has understandably never been quite right since that afternoon, is a family man who seems an empty shell. One afternoon, he and his son come across the wet cement, where his name remains half-scrawled, a potent symbol of a life interrupted.
Then Jimmy's daughter is killed (revealed in a masterful sequence of helicopter shots and police calls). The night she was murdered, Dave came home covered in a blood and sporting a bruised hand whose origin changes every time he's asked about it. Sean's partner Whitey (Laurence Fishburne) thinks Dave may have done it; even Dave's wife (Marcia Gay Harden) has her suspicions. Sean's not so sure, because somewhere deep inside both he and Jimmy lurks guilt over that fall afternoon that will remain with them until the day they die.
This is powerful stuff. If Mystic River had been the work of some hot, new, young auteur, everyone would have shouted its praises from the highest rooftop. But it was the 24th film by Clint Eastwood, 73 at the time and helming arguably his best picture to that point. Eastwood is a confident enough filmmaker to stay the hell out of the way; his story and his actors carry the film, and his greatest accomplishment is to let them do their job. Throughout its unhurried running time (137 minutes), Eastwood refuses to reach, and refuses to rush.
The picture is populated with so many good performances, from so many first-rate actors, that it's like watching a master class in film acting. Penn's is the standout; his tough talk and hard manner form a mask for real pain, and three scenes here contain some of his best work. Watch the scene where he finds out his daughter is dead--and, specifically, how quickly his fear turns to anger. Watch the scene where he sits on his back porch and talks to Robbins; he speaks so simply, and so plainly, that it breaks your heart. And watch his scene in the funeral home, which is as fine a piece of acting as you're likely to see anytime soon.
God, this movie's fantastic. It's refreshing--a movie made by grown-ups, for grown-ups. The screenplay by Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential) elegantly boils down the terse novel by Dennis Lahane (Gone Baby Gone) to its most basic and heartbreaking elements. It is so simple, and so quiet, but it is a tough sonofabitch--Eastwood's camera stares through moments when most movies flinch. There's no easy sentimentality here, and when the film arrives at its tragic conclusion, it is overwhelming not in its emotion (though there's a surplus of that), but in its inevitability. When Sean tells Whitey that the dead girl is his friend's daughter, Whitey remarks, "He's in for a world of hurt." He has no idea.
THE BLU-RAY DISC:
The muted palate of Tom Stern's cinematography is faithfully reproduced by the 1080p/VC-1 transfer, which is clean and accurate, though not exactly HD eye candy. Skin tones are natural and detail work is outstanding, while the film's many deep blacks and heavy shadows are rich and inky (particularly in the mid-scene film where Robbins tells his son a bedtime story, or his final scene with Penn). The 2.40:1 image is also nicely dimensional, as evidenced by the wide shots of Sean and Whitey on a bridge overlooking the city early in the picture. Bright scenes occasionally tip a little too hot, and there are fleeting glimpses of edge enhancement, but for the most part, it's a solid video presentation.
The 5.1 DTS-HD MA track balances the quiet intensity of the dialogue with Eastwood's elegiac score, with mostly successful results. A bit of volume jockeying is required on some of the quieter scenes (like the cafeteria conversation after the identification of the body), but for the most part, dialogue is audible and well-separated from music and effects. Environmental sounds are quiet but present, like the squawking police radios and snapping cameras at the story's crime scenes, while the closing parade scene is nicely immersive. The stylized sounds of Dave's escape are terrifyingly present, from the low-end rumble to the forest sounds surrounding the viewer.
Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks are also available in French, Spanish, German, Hungarian, Italian, and Castillian, along with no less than 17 subtitle options.
Warner Brothers' 50GB Blu-ray includes all of the extras from Mystic River's earlier three-disc special edition DVD (save for the third disc, an audio CD of Eastwood's score). First up is an Audio Commentary by actors Kevin Bacon and Tim Robbins. They're both interesting and well-spoken guys, but the track itself is rather dull; it's full of long pauses and meandering stories that don't always go much of anywhere.
"Mystic River: Beneath The Surface" (22:52) is an artsier-than-average making-of featurette, melding interviews with the actors, the writers, and Eastwood into a quietly effective look at how the film came together. Many of those same interviews pop up in the more conventional "Bravo TV Special Mystic River: From Page to Screen" (11:32), making it a pretty redundant addition.
The centerpiece of the bonus features are "The Charlie Rose Show Interviews" (1:51:23 total), featuring extended sit-downs with Eastwood, Robbins, and Bacon from 2003, discussing the film and their careers to date. Rose is one of the best interviewers in the business, and all three segments (particularly his 41 minutes with Eastwood) are outstanding.
The film's original Theatrical Teaser (1:15)--with a voice-over by Eastwood himself--and Theatrical Trailer (2:20) close out the extras.
When Mystic River hit theaters in 2003, Eastwood was coming off a bit of a hit-and-miss patch as a filmmaker, with a string of films based on bestsellers (Absolute Power, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, True Crime, Blood Work) meeting with unspectacular box office and critical notices. Mystic River marked the beginning of his most recent renaissance; he followed it with such critical and financial successes as Million Dollar Baby, Changeling, and Gran Torino. Seven years later, it remains a towering achievement in the Eastwood filmography--a quiet masterpiece, filled with tremendous performances and skillful filmmaking.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.