THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan

"MYSTIC RIVER"

If there’s one thing we know for sure, it’s this: You can never count Clint Eastwood out. As both actor and director, Eastwood has been making movies forever. Some are better than others, but at least once a decade he turns in a truly magnificent piece of work. In 1992, he won an Academy Award for Unforgiven and his latest film, Mystic River has been nominated for six Oscars. It surely ranks as one of the best films of Eastwood’s long and distinguished career.

The story begins with three boys – Jimmy, Sean, and Dave - living in a Boston neighborhood. One afternoon, they scrawl their names into some fresh concrete. Two plain clothes cops catch them and haul Dave away. Only after relating the incident to their parents do Jimmy and Sean realize that the men weren’t cops. They were, in fact, child molesters, and Dave was never the same after he escaped their clutches several days later.

In present day, Jimmy (Sean Penn) is the owner of a small convenience store. His teenage daughter is murdered one day, sending him into a wave of grief. The cop investigating the case is Sean (Kevin Bacon). They have not seen each other since childhood. Neither have they seen Dave (Tim Robbins), who is now a walking shell of a human being. Dave comes home one night covered in blood, tells his wife Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden) that he accidentally killed a man. When she hears of the death of Jimmy’s daughter, she begins to suspect her husband may have actually killed her (especially since no male body has been found). She tells Sean, who makes Dave a prime suspect in the case. Jimmy is devastated again to hear that his old friend may be his daughter’s murderer.

I’m simplifying the plot somewhat because part of the power of Mystic River is in not quite knowing what to expect. The three main characters have two shared things in their past: friendship and tragedy. Those things combine in unexpected ways as adults. Brian Helgeland’s screenplay, based on Dennis Lehane’s best seller, intentionally keeps you in the dark as to Dave’s guilt or innocence. By doing so, it is able to focus more on the character interactions rather than on the whodunit aspects. (To be honest, the film follows an age-old cinematic truism about whodunits, but it does so in such a clever manner that I never even stopped to recognize it for what it was.)

The performances in the movie are outstanding across the board. Sean Penn – who also delivered big time in 21 Grams - again knocks one out of the park. His character is a loving, grieving father who has several sides, some of which we don’t see until later in the picture. Penn realistically transitions between the guy’s various shades. Kevin Bacon, a very underappreciated actor, is reliably good as the cop. As with Penn, we come to learn more about this man as the story goes on, which gives Bacon some really interesting things to do. The best performance is from Tim Robbins. He makes Dave such a haunted guy. The character can’t stop referring to “getting in that car” years before. Robbins plays Dave with a weary sense of being shell-shocked. Even years later, the character has been scarred to the point where he can never go back. It’s magnificent acting. Marcia Gay Harden and Laura Linney (as Penn’s wife) are also solid.

Mystic River works as a mystery, but there’s a deeper level that really makes it special. There are themes of friendship and loyalty, vengeance and redemption. Eastwood gives the film a melancholic tone that allows these themes to sink in. This is the kind of film that slowly gets under your skin, drawing you more intimately into the sad existence of the characters. It’s a beautifully made, deeply affecting piece of work.

( out of four)


Mystic River is rated R for violence and language. The running time is 2 hours and 17 minutes.

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