The Crook, the Cop and the Crazy
Of the twenty-four films Clint Eastwood has directed, often in combination with also acting in and/or producing the same, Mystic River should prove, not necessarily the best, but the one to find greatest resonance with an already adoring public. Opening Night feature of the current New York Film Festival, this film is a flawed but intelligently crafted work, effectively combining crime mystery with deeper study of character and, to a lesser extent, society. Above all, including the press conference joke that male leads were chosen on the basis of having their own hair, its nighttime masculine world evokes tremendous call-and-response from three actors playing at the height of their talent.
Each of the three is paired with his woman, and it is not to take away from skilled actresses to say that the latter rôles involve passively reacting rather than initiating. In fact, one flaw is the extraneous presence of the third, estranged wife, a largely hidden face silently pay-phoning at various moments. In addition, Eastwood's half-deprecatingly stated Lady Macbeth parallel aside, the aroused pushy wife at the end also rings out of place. Indeed, the very title, inherited from Dennis Lehane's successful novel and reinforced by frequent brooding camera movement across troubled waters -- Rand McNally has the Mystic north of the film's South Boston setting -- is as misleading as the Connecticut town whose pizza parlor brought Julia Roberts to notice. For the present film does not need the cumbersome mythologizing of Unforgiven. Further, the director/producer's remark is more disingenuous than innocent -- especially in light of recent scandal in the very city of the film -- that one need not read anything into framing crosses on a prominent signet ring and a back-to-neck tattoo.
Such non-essentials should have been worked around or omitted, particularly given a sluggish lull near the end of these 137 minutes.
Sean Penn's ex-con Jimmy Markum has gone straight after serving time at Deer Island when another crook turned state's evidence. Still commanding the loyalty of blue-collar East Buckingham's toughs, he runs a grocery and dotes on nineteen-year-old daughter Katie, whose mother died during his prison term, to the exclusion of his two younger girls by second wife Annabeth (Laura Linney). Boyhood buddy Sean Devine (Kevin Bacon) is now a State homicide detective, obsessed with his wife's having left him but -- "relationships that cops have are really like marriages" -- living through his police partnership with Whitey Powers (Laurence Fishburne).
The third of the once inseparable street friends is Dave Boyle (Tim Robbins), married to insecure Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden) and a quiet but devoted baseball-fan father. Twenty-five years earlier, the three bosom pals had been traumatized and, it turns out, have each in his own way failed to deal with resulting demons. Carving their names in fresh sidewalk cement, they are caught by a "detective" -- significantly, only Dave does not finish his name -- who whisks one away to a basement and sodomizes the pathetic youngster for four days.
As men, they have gone different ways, drifted apart, avoiding the memory. Fatefully, they will be brought to confront one another and their shared inner turmoil, for, on her half-sister's Communion Day, Katie's bloody body is found in a leafy Pen Park pond. Attempting to keep his heart uninvolved, Sean carries out the official investigation; unable to cry, suspecting a boyfriend to whom he objected (Thomas Guiry as Brendan Harris), Jimmy unleashes his goons to gather information; and Dave, who had seen the girl shortly before the murder and then returned home distraught and bloody, faces his wife's suspicions and his own reawakened nightmare.
Certainly, Mystic River suggests more than a mere murder movie, along the lines of Sleepers (also starring Bacon and -- from a controversial, purportedly nonfiction book -- filmed as though a "true" case). Following almost awed applause, at a press conference Eastwood admitted that "I have always been fascinated by the stealing of innocence." The death of a daughter in her prime -- a senseless, chance death, at that -- the haunted, only half-complete lives three boys will lead, all are paradise lost, the snake in the garden.
There is, indeed, a sense of past perverted, even to a neighborhood's evolution, although loss through inevitable gentrification is barely touched in Dave's droll wish for a good crime wave to "get property values down where they belong." In the final analysis, however, there is no Jamesian Turn of the Screw ambiguity, no supernatural or psychological alternative here; murder will out, at least in a factual solution to a crime.
Because that solution is hurried, and not fully clear -- perhaps it is better realized in the book -- does not lessen the powerful audience effect of the film version. Fortified by the atmosphere of a real community in a real city, and by a music score (by Eastwood, son Kyle, and Michael Stevens) that only once or twice strikes too dramatic, and by a top-notch cast, Mystic River is mesmerizing filmmaking.
(Released by Warner Bros. and rated "R" for language and violence. Opens in select cities on October 8, wide on October 15.)