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Mystic River is a superior murder thriller with special qualities fast disappearing from genre pictures -- it's not about action scenes or serial killers, and it doesn't get its jollies by offering us a vicarious torture experience. Dennis LeHane's novel has been adapted to retain the original working class Boston setting and its individualized characters, as well as some highly dramatic whodunnit surprises. This is one of director Clint Eastwood's better movies. He commissioned a great script from Brian Helgeland, of L.A. Confidential and managed to land a faultless star cast that never seems to be competing for show-off moments.
Lehane's grim story remains interesting because we believe the issues it raises about 'old neighborhood' relationships. It also examines moral issues among a group of people, all who seem to harbor a crime or a shame in their personal background. Kid buddies Jimmy Markum, Sean Devine and Dave Boyle (as adults, Sean Penn, Kevin Bacon & Tim Robbins) have all stayed in the Boston area. Now a state policeman, Sean no longer keeps close contact. Estranged from his wife under perplexing circumstances, Sean is handling the emotional pressure with the help of his partner Whitey Powers (Laurence Fishburne). Jimmy had a rocky early life, having spent two years in jail for robbery. After losing his young wife to cancer, Jimmy straightened himself out raising his beloved daughter Katie (Emmy Rossum of The Day After Tomorrow). He has two younger girls by his second wife, Annabeth (Laura Linney).
Of the three friends, Dave Boyle has had the saddest story. When they were just kids he was kidnapped and held for four days by a predatory pair of child molesters. Dave escaped but has never gotten over the trauma, and often behaves in a subdued, disturbed manner noticed by his understanding wife, Celeste (Marcia Gay Hardin). One dreaded evening, a ghastly murder takes place; Dave Boyle comes home covered in blood. Celeste covers for him, but begins to suspect that her husband is lying. He compares himself to vampires in movies ... contaminated creatures that are no longer part of the flow of life.
Sean and Whitey's investigation is hampered by the ties between the characters. The vengeful Jimmy employs his old buddies in crime the Savage brothers, who go about harassing potential witnesses. Celeste and Annabeth are cousins, making contact between the two families a strange outpouring of shared grief and suppressed fears. The victim's secret boyfriend happens to be the son of another of Jimmy's old cronies, who disappeared under mysterious circumstances not long after Jimmy was released from prison. Whitey thinks Sean may not be pursuing the case in the right direction because of his personal connection. Who is the killer? With the dangerous Savage brothers and the unstable Jimmy at large, a bad situation may only get worse?
Clint Eastwood's standoff directing style works very well for Mystic River. A director trying harder to distinguish himself might easily burden the tale with flashy camera work. Some Eastwood pictures seem less than inspired but when the story and performances are this good his 'stay-out-of-the-way' policy pays off. Eastwood's efforts seem guided toward keeping his actors on track, as opposed to dictating the details of their performances. That doesn't mean that Eastwood's camera is lazy: Sean Penn and Tim Robbins have extreme emotions to depict, and the camera angles are very well chosen. We've all seen movies where distraught parents become hysterical but Sean Penn's reaction here is searing; Eastwood caps it with a God's POV angle that expresses but does not exploit Jimmy's helpless fury. Another more subtle moment occurs when Tim Robbins' Dave is taken away in the back seat of a car. The shot mirrors the awful moment from the past when little Dave was taken away by his abductors. Eastwood's neutral stance generates sympathy for all of his characters, regardless of their crimes. The thuggish Savage brothers, for instance, are acknowledged as Jimmy's loyal aides and macho support mechanism, even though Sean regards them with trepidation. They were the really scary kids in the neighborhood; their mother was a "loose cannon factory".
Although Mystic River is about unhappy crimes in a place filled with sad stories, the film doesn't indict the system or societal indifference. The stress is on character drama, not social comment. Jimmy and Sean took opposite paths toward crime and the law, but this isn't an update of Angels with Dirty Faces. Katie's boyfriend Brendan (Thomas Guiry) comes from a family with severe problems yet is a decent and responsible guy. Jimmy Markum has mellowed into an upstanding family man well aware of the baggage he carries from his criminal youth. He's delighted to attend his daughter's First Communion; we know that his present violent course is only a result of dire circumstances.
What's disturbing about the show is an epilogue scene that at first glance seems to be an unwelcome holdover from the novel, or an endorsement of "family crime" as glamorized in the Godfather films. I at first thought the scene was included to give Laura Linney a 'big moment' to match those granted the rest of the cast. The scene is disturbing because it goes against what we expect in stories of crime and punishment: one of the guilty parties is encouraged to forget the wrong he's done in the name of protecting his family. This seems entirely wrong-headed at first, as we all go through life seeing others wronged (or being wronged ourselves) by people who rationalize their actions as doing good for their loved ones, as if that defense justified anything -- cheating in business or school; "using" or victimizing friends and co-workers in petty ways. After a second viewing (and I think I will see the movie a third time) I think that the authors of Mystic River are well aware of this contradiction. The mystery may be solved but these compromised people will spend the rest of their lives trying to fit the broken pieces together. The epilogue is structurally ragged but not inappropriate.
Warner Home Video's Blu-ray of Mystic River is a great-looking encoding with a sharp image and rich colors; the dark scenes here look much better than the film print I saw in the theater in 2003. The audio is also clear, although I have to admit that the optional subtitles help navigate the Boston accents flying around.
Tim Robbins and Kevin Bacon provide a commentary that understandably concentrates on actor's issues. When not praising their co-workers they offer interesting observations, such as being surprised that Clint Eastwood filmed on actual locations in Boston instead of relocating to Canada where the film could be made more cheaply. This reflects positively on Eastwood, as one of the few Hollywood directors who doesn't permit runaway production practices or otherwise undercut his own industry. Eastwood operates with a kind of career consistency gone since the collapse of the studio system.
The featurette Beneath the Surface is an actor-centric EKP-like interview docu, and a second Bravo TV show on the film goes more or less in the same direction. Individual interviews with Eastwood, Robbins and Bacon from the Charlie Rose Show are included. Two trailers round out the package.
I was pleasantly surprised by Mystic River, as I remember being inundated that fall with Oscar-season "serious" movies, each yelling "Nominate me! Nominate me!" louder than the last. In this case Sean Penn won for Best Actor and Tim Robbins for best supporting actor, but the awards were more than deserved. I'm glad I got to see this picture again, as it seemed even better this time. Highly recommended.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Mystic River Blu-ray rates:
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