A River Runs Through It
Mystic River is directed by Clint Eastwood and is based on the novel of the same name by Dennis Lehane. The film stars Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon, Laurence Fishburne, Marcia Gay Harden, and Laura Linney. It won the Academy Awards for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor, the first film to win both awards since the 1959 Ben-Hur. The movie was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actress.
There's so much star power on hand in Clint Eastwood's Mystic River, that the movie turning out great is something you feel you ought to take for granted. It's not every day you get to see the likes of Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, and Kevin Bacon team up with someone like Clint Eastwood in a film adaptation of an award-winning mystery novel, but in the case of Mystic River, that's exactly what we have, and there is no reason to expect anything but the best. I have found Clint Eastwood to be a good director more often than a bad director, but given the proper source material, Eastwood can be a great director, and with Mystic River, we get flashes of great. It took myself two full viewings to realize the greatness existing within the film, and I can now better understand the justification for so many Oscar nominations.
At the heart of Mystic River's story is the relationship between three boys: Jimmy Markum, Sean Devine, and Dave Boyle. The film begins in 1975 Boston, where the three boys are playing street hockey together, until their ball accidentally falls into a sewer. The three notice a spot of wet concrete and decide to write their names into it. Suddenly, a car drives by with two men inside. One of the them gets out and, pretending to be a police officer, scolds the boys for drawing their names into the concrete. The man then demands for Dave to get into the car, telling him they'll drive him home and tell his mother what the boys did. The men do not drive Dave home. Instead, they hold Dave captive and sexually abuse him, until Dave is able to escape four days later.
Twenty-five years later, the three boys are grown and still live in Boston. Jimmy (Sean Penn) is an ex-con who is married to his second wife Annabeth (Laura Linney), has three children, and runs a neighborhood store. Sean (Kevin Bacon) is a detective for the Massachusetts State Police, but is struggling with the fact that his pregnant wife Lauren (Tori Davis) has recently left him. Dave (Tim Robbins), is a blue-collar worker who is married, has a son, but is still tormented by the memory of his abduction. One of Jimmy's children is his 19-year-old daughter Katie (Emmy Rossum), and she is secretly dating a boy named Brendan Harris (Tom Guiry), whom Jimmy detests for some reason. One Saturday night, Katie goes out with her girlfriends, but she does not return home later that night. She is found murdered the next day by Sean and the State Police, her body discovered lying in a nearby park. The same night of Katie's murder, Dave returns home in the middle of the night covered in blood and with an injured hand. Dave claims to have fought off a mugger and possibly killed him. When Jimmy learns of his daughter's murder, he begins his own investigation, intending to find the killer before Sean and the police do.
While much of Mystic River is the solving of a murder mystery, the movie is a character study more than anything. The three boys are good childhood friends as we come to understand in the film's opening scene, but as things happen in life, friends can and will go their separate ways. Jimmy, Sean, and Dave all do drift apart as they grow up, but because of Dave's abduction, the three share a bond that can never be erased. The fracturing of Dave's psyche due to the abduction continues to affect him even in married, adult life, and because Dave can never shake the haunting memory of his abduction, he will never be able to let Jimmy and Sean slip from his mind. After all, Jimmy and Sean were the ones who watched Dave be driven away in the abductors' car, the two knowing full well that it could have been them in that car as well. And with Katie's murder many years later, the three are brought back together, but in a way where "remembering the good ol' times" is not possible. In a way, the boys' friendship ended with Dave's abduction, and it isn't until many years later that the fallout of that tragic day comes to life.
- It should surprise absolutely no one when I say that the acting on display is very strong. Sean Penn's intensity is, at times, through the roof, particularly when he arrives on the scene where Katie's body is found (the famous, "Is that my daughter in there?!" scene). For that scene, Penn actually requested for an oxygen tank to be standing by in case he passed out after the take. Then there's a scene that Emmy Rossum stated made her cry: when Jimmy goes to the morgue and tells Katie that he is going to find the killer before the police do. Penn shows a fierce exterior throughout the movie, understandable for playing a man who was once a criminal. Despite his aggressiveness, Jimmy doesn't hold back any emotions when the loss of his daughter starts to really take its hold on him. Jimmy goes to visit Dave in one scene, and the two sit on a porch together, where Jimmy eventually breaks out into tears, explaining his frustration over not being able to cry for his daughter earlier. Speaking of Dave, Tim Robbins is just as excellent in his role as Penn is in his: conveying Dave's scarred interior with the right amount of long faces, and speaking his lines with a type of somber tone that clearly suggests that this is a troubled man but not a mentally ill one. I think that Dave is actually the most important of the three boys: his state of mind throughout the movie is always a dark and troubled one, and it acts as a microcosm of the movie as a whole. Mystic River is gloomy and unsettling, with Eastwood relying a lot on low-key lighting and a de-saturated color palette to help you better realize that this is not at all a "happy" film. Jimmy and Sean are also troubled characters, but Jimmy takes on a more heated, energetic approach to the situation, while Sean's troubles don't extend that much beyond the departure of his wife and his frustration with trying to solve the case. Jimmy might be the main character as he has the greatest tie to the murder, but because of what happened to Dave in the past and of what happens to him the night of Katie's murder, everything, one way or another, runs through him.
- The discovery of the murderer and the reasoning behind Katie's murder aren't anything mind-blowing. In fact, watching what happens to Jimmy, Sean, and Dave is far more interesting than trying to put all the pieces of the mystery together. This is a time where the focus of the murder mystery should not necessarily be on figuring out how it happened, but more so on what happens to our characters because of this murder mystery. What do we observe in Jimmy, Sean, and Dave all these years later, with Katie's murder driving their actions and emotional states? How much have they changed over the years? Or have any of them changed at all? The movie provides no easy, straightforward answers to such questions, and that's what makes it such an interesting character study.
It'd be one thing if Mystic River was solely an impressive murder mystery with lots of twists and turns. The nature of the mystery is, in reality, the part least worth focusing on, because it is the characters that give Mystic River its power and its soul, as we watch one tragedy separate Jimmy, Sean, and Dave in the past, until another tragedy unites them many years later. What we can take away from Mystic River is a dark look into the irreversible power of pain and suffering, and how it permanently connects people. Jimmy, Sean, and Dave could have gotten together many years later to talk about how much fun they had playing street hockey and writing their names in wet concrete. But because of what happened next, they couldn't. The three are permanently connected by Dave's abduction, and no matter how far the three may have drifted apart, that haunting memory is always there, and it will never leave any of them. Kind of ironic that the mystery turns out to be the least interesting part of a mystery movie. Hey, that's the result of having several full-bodied, highly memorable characters.
Here you'll find my reviews on just about any film you may have seen. I try to avoid major spoilers as much as possible. I structure my reviews in the following way: