Mystic River

Movie Information

Genre: Mystery Thriller
Director: Clint Eastwood
Starring: Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon, Marcia Gay Harden, Laurence Fishburne, Laura Linney
Rated: R

Mystic River contains some great performances, plus a lot of mood and atmosphere. It’s very well made, which is no surprise coming from Clint Eastwood (who continues — even after the box-office disappointment of Blood Work — to craft films his way, making no effort to be trendy, hip or overly concerned with demographics).

With Mystic River, Eastwood has made a long (137 minutes), expansive, deeply serious movie without a single explosion or a jumble of rapid edits. He’s also made a film that’s about as far afield in its examination of the ramifications of the Dirty Harry “shoot now and don’t bother asking questions ever” mindset as possible. What Eastwood has not made is the exact same thing that eluded him with Blood Work (also scripted by Brian Helgeland) — a convincing or successful whodunit.

By the time you arrive at Mystic River‘s “shocking” revelation of the killer, it’s hard to be shocked — you pretty much knew it four reels earlier. In all fairness, the “whodunit” is less obvious than it was in Blood Work, though it’s becoming only more obvious that Messrs. Eastwood and Helgeland need a crash-course in mystery fiction. The story line is at least less brazenly contrived than the one in Blood Work — though I have to admit that I enjoyed that earlier film more if only because it managed to be entertaining even when it was at its most absurd (sometimes it was entertaining because it was at its most absurd).

Which brings up another problem with Mystic River: It’s just so damned serious — serious with a capital “S.” I haven’t seen a movie this utterly humorless since In the Bedroom. The only time I cracked a smile in the entire film was when Laurence Fishburne’s police detective described Tim Robbins’ character as being “in his mid-30s” (in which case, so am I). All right, so the material — child molestation, murder, vengeance — isn’t a laff-riot, but this kind of two-fisted grimness always strikes me as less an attempt at realism than a bid for being taken as Important with a capital “I” (hopefully leading to an Oscar with a capital “O”).

It’s ironic that just last week, I wrote that They Call Her One Eye “starts with a young girl being raped by her grandfather — and then it gets really nasty.” With very slight additions, I could rework that as a description of the opening of Mystic River, in which Dave (Cameron Bowen, Seabiscuit), one of three boyhood friends, is bundled off in a car by a pair of cruising pedophiles who — apparently — rape him for several days before he escapes. And then it gets really nasty (albeit in a much more sober-minded way).

The movie then jumps to the present day and friends Jimmy, Dave and Sean have grown into Sean Penn, Tim Robbins and Kevin Bacon. In the meantime, Jimmy (Penn) has done a stretch in the big house, been married twice (his first wife died while he was in the hoosegow), opened a convenience store in the “old neighborhood” and fathered three children. Dave (Robbins) has married, had one child, and is otherwise haunted by his childhood trauma. Sean (Bacon) has left the “old neighborhood” and become a state police detective with a faltering marriage and a newborn daughter he’s never seen.

The plot proper gets under way when Jimmy’s oldest daughter, Katie (Emmy Rossum, Songcatcher), is murdered, and Sean is assigned to the case. The major plot complication lies in the fact that the night of the murder, Dave — one of the last people to see Katie alive — has a chunk of unaccounted-for time, a wounded hand and a knife slash across his stomach that he claims (obviously lying) is the result of an encounter with a mugger. Worse, he thinks he may have killed his attacker and can’t go to the police. Things get more complicated when Dave’s wife (Marcia Gay Harden) begins to suspect him — and so does Sean’s partner, Whitey (Laurence Fishburne). This leads to a very convoluted web of suspicions and misunderstandings that works brilliantly as character study, but none too effectively (or convincingly) as a mystery. Possibly, neither Eastwood, nor Helgeland care much about the mystery element, which is finally almost a tangent (and a simplistic one). Unfortunately, this results in a film that disappoints on a key level.

It’s impossible to fault the performances. The three stars are in fine form with Bacon, I think, taking top honors in the least-showy role. The supporting players are equally good, especially Laura Linney (The Life of David Gale) as Jimmy’s wife Annabeth, who evidences great range as her character moves from a background figure to an ultimately chilling creation.

Eastwood’s trademark laid-back direction is effective and boasts a few surprising moments (often bolstered by the musical score, which he also wrote). On the other hand, the director doesn’t seem wholly comfortable with Mystic River‘s chunks of rather heavy-handed symbolism — some of which are hampered by Helgeland’s screenplay. A central misfire comes late in the film when Jimmy answers Sean’s question, “When was the last time you saw Dave?” The answer is supposed to hit you like a ton of bricks, but it’s so predictable that it merely seems pretentious. It also doesn’t help that Eastwood seems unsure of how and when to end the film, which seems to be ready for the final fade-out several times before it actually gets there.

As character study, the film has great power, and there’s no doubt that it offers a dynamite cast a variety of strong roles. As an entertaining mystery, however, it’s decidedly wanting, and it’s uneven overall. Worth a look? Most certainly — maybe even two looks. But Mystic River still falls short of being a masterpiece.

— reviewed by Ken Hanke

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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One thought on “Mystic River

  1. Barry

    I like downbeat movies, and would choose Chinatown as my all-time favorite if pressed, but I staggered out of this thing feeling as though I had been beaten with a sadness stick for 2 1/2 hours … and I think it’s because of that humorlessness you mention, among other things. As uncompromising as Chinatown was, it had plenty of humor as well as beauty and romance (and a great score by Jerry Goldsmith). I think it was this film that made me face into the fact that I generally don’t like Eastwood’s movies and no longer really consider them as something I want to see.

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