Mystic River

After a summer full of brainless action movies, it's great to see a movie like Mystic River, consummately directed by Clint Eastwood. Eastwood (Blood Work, Space Cowboys) can sometimes be a tad erratic as a director, but Mystic River brings out the best in him. Based on the novel by Dennis Lehane, Mystic River explores how violence affects the lives of three childhood friends. This is a favorite theme of Eastwood's (Unforgiven is a great example), and his relaxed directing style lends an air of introspection and thoughtfulness to the film, wonderfully complemented by some superb acting. In the prologue, three young boys are playing in the street. A car pulls up, and two men pretending to be policeman take one of the boys, and over the course of the next few days abuse him mercilessly. He escapes, but the experience seriously affected him.

Now, Dave Boyle (Tim Robbins, The Truth About Charlie, Human Nature) is a broken adult. He is just a shell of a person, who seemingly spends the day in a daze. One night he comes home at 3 a.m. with somebody else's blood on him. His wife Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden, Casa de Los Babys, Pollock) does not believe his alibi, that he got in a scuffle and accidentally killed someone. Her worries worsen the next day, when they learn that Jimmy Markum's (Sean Penn, I Am Sam, The Weight of Water) daughter was found dead. Jimmy and Charlie still live in the same neighborhood, but lead vastly separate lives. Jimmy went to jail for robbery when he was younger, and now is trying to rebuild his life. He works in a liquor store to support his wife Annabeth (Laura Linney, The Life of David Gale, The Mothman Prophecies) and their daughters. The death of his daughter now sends Jimmy into a craze. He doesn't know what to do, all he knows is that he wants to know who killed his daughter. He's probably not sure himself what will come next.

This brings the last friend into the picture. Sean Devine (Kevin Bacon, Trapped, Novocaine) is a cop, and is investigating the murder with is partner Whitey Powers (Laurence Fishburne, The Matrix Reloaded, Biker Boyz). Sean drifted furthest from the neighborhood, and now with all three back together, it brings back many of the memories of Dave's abduction. It's a lot to set up, but once Eastwood and adapter Brian Helgeland (The Order, Blood Work) put all the pieces in place, things really start moving. Dave is odd to begin with, but seems extremely suspicious when questioned. He admits to having seen Jimmy's daughter the night she died. Worse, his experience as a boy was remarkably similar to the death of Jimmy's daughter, which turns him into a suspect. Eastwood is then happy to sit back and let his actors wade through the morass of emotions. There is a plot and it does move forward (sometimes somewhat languidly), but Mystic River is first and foremost a character study where the actors can delve into their characters.

And what a great cast it is. Penn and Bacon headline the cast and remind everybody (not that they needed to) why they are so good. Penn's Jimmy struggles to be a better man, but his past always comes back to haunt him. Foremost is a large sense of guilt; what if he was the taken away in the car? Could he have done anything to help Dave? His daughter's death makes his struggle between right and wrong more tenuous. He wants to kill the killer, yet he knows he shouldn't. Jimmy's rage is evident in Penn, who looks like he could explode in anger at any moment. It gets worse when he truly becomes angry. He has an unnatural calm about him, and everything he does and says is done in a slow, methodical manner. As for Sean, he wants to do the right thing. He believes Dave is innocent, but all the evidence seems to say otherwise. Bacon is notable for his ability to "hide" in a role. He never gives an outlandish, flashy performance. Instead, he sinks into his role, disappearing into character every time. It's so good that people tend to ignore his performances, which is a damn shame. Bacon's performance is the backbone of Mystic River, he is the steady presence and moral compass for the other characters.

His thoughts and actions mirror the general story, which heads towards some huge moral dilemmas. As Sean struggles to discern right from wrong, his turmoil comes out in the other characters. Especially Dave. He claims he is innocent, but keeps hiding what actually happened to him that night. And it becomes harder and harder to believe him. All three men are trying to sort through some serious issues, and it's the men that get the top billing, and most of the meaty parts. Linney and Harden, both great actors in their own right, are shortchanged just because their roles are not that prominent. Mystic River is over two hours, and never feels that. It says a lot when a movie this long, that paces itself slowly seems to zip by quickly. And hey, everybody does a pretty convincing (annoying) Boston accent.

Haro Rates It: Pretty Good.
2 hours, 17 minutes, Rated R for language and violence.

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