Mark Reviews Movies

MYSTIC RIVER

2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Clint Eastwood

Cast: Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon, Laurence Fishburne, Marcia Gay Harden, Laura Linney, Tom Guiry, Emmy Rossum

MPAA Rating:  (for language and violence)

Running Time: 2:17

Release Date: 10/8/03 (limited); 10/15/03 (wide)


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Review by Mark Dujsik

An apprehensive cross between an elegiac tone poem of loss, an ever-twisting murder mystery, and a character study revolving around the regret of lost innocence, Mystic River tries to be all of these things and ends up falling short on all counts.  The main problem is that the movie never finds strength in any of its dramatic permutations and consequently leaves one distanced from the proceedings.  Scenes of raw emotion and lyricism feel more like technical exercises than representations of the reality of the story.  The imbalance lasts for the entire running time, and by the climax, when Brian Helgeland's script finally takes focus, it is on the mystery, easily the most pedestrian strand of the movie that seems even more uninspired because of a lack of development in all narrative departments.  And after its strongest point and elimination of the mystery, the movie's denouement again suffers from the central problem.  The movie is, admittedly, a noteworthy technical accomplishment, finding strength in the majority of its performances and Clint Eastwood's cohesive direction of uneven material.

As children growing up in Boston, Jimmy (Sean Penn), Dave (Tim Robbins), and Sean (Kevin Bacon) were close friends, spending their days playing sports in the street.  One day, though, they decide to write their names in wet cement, and a man disguised as a cop takes Dave away in the back of his car.  Four days later, Dave escapes from captivity in a basement.  Twenty-five years later, the three of them have parted ways.  Jimmy is married to Annabeth (Laura Linney) and owns and runs a local convenience store.  Dave is married to Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden), and they have a young son.  Sean is now a cop.  Jimmy's eldest daughter Katie (Emmy Rossum) is going out on the town to celebrate with her friends, but she never returns home.  Sean and his partner Whitey (Laurence Fishburne) are called in to investigate, and Jimmy, after seeing a group of squad cars, arrives at the scene as well out of curiosity.  Katie's body is discovered, the victim of a vicious murder.  The three friends are drawn together once again, Jimmy slowly turning his grief into thoughts of retributions, Dave hiding a secret from everyone, and Sean trying to find the killer before Jimmy and his thugs seek justice of their own.

At this point in the movie, the characters have been developed about as far as they will be for the remainder of the story.  The cast does what they can with the simplified characters, and they make distinct choices that display the clear understanding they have of their characters.  Sean Penn work to great effect, believably moving from devastated to determined, which is vitally important to make the climax of the movie plausible and within his character's bounds.  Kevin Bacon and Laurence Fishburne successfully play it low key in the midst of the more grandiose emotions and gestures around them.  Tim Robbins work stands out, partially because his character is the only one who has any depth to him.  We have a knowledge of his history from the start and find ourselves clinging to him after it's clear the other characters' development ends once the inciting incident occurs.  Robbins captures the essence of this timid man, lost within his own mind, continuously haunted by his past, and now trapped in lie after lie to hide something from his friends and family.  The women, by comparison, do not fare nearly as well.  Marcia Gay Harden's character is merely the damsel in distress, and Laura Linney stands idly by in the background until the end when she gives a clumsily written and unprovoked speech.

Helgeland's screenplay troubles extend much further than the characters, although it should be noted that the weak characterizations highlight the other problems.  After learning of Katie's murder, it's odd how disconnected from the onscreen grief we actually are.  At first, it seems a choice on Eastwood's part, perhaps to emphasize the senselessness of the crime, but as the characters continue to mourn, it becomes clear that our distance from their pain is a direct result of our inability to empathize with character outlines disguised as actual characters.  Soon enough, the mystery behind the homicide slowly begins to take focus, breaking us off even more.  There are obvious themes being struck at here, but again, without a connection to these people, there's no emotional impact behind them.  Eastwood repeats certain motifs throughout the movie, most importantly shots of a man moving down a road away from the camera.  It happens near the beginning with young Dave being taken away by his kidnappers and is repeated two more times.  Call it fate or inevitability in regards to making one wrong decision, but once more, there's nothing tangible in which to relate it.  Eastwood and Helgeland do manage to hit home the theme of the vicious circular nature of violence, and it might actually play stronger because of detachment.

By the time Mystic River arrives at the key moment when that theme is stressed, the murder mystery has fallen apart at the seams.  Coincidences run rampant, and the sequence of events that lead to the tragic climax is based entirely on the ineptitude of the detectives, both of whom think the other has examined what turns out to be the key piece of evidence.  For all of its virtues, there's something missing from the heart of Mystic River for which no amount of quality cinematography, editing, and acting can substitute.

Copyright 2003 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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