When they were kids growing up together in Boston, Jimmy Markum (Sean Penn), Dave Boyle (Tim Robbins) and Sean Devine (Kevin Bacon) spent their days playing stickball on the street, the way most boys did in their blue-collar neighbourhood of East Buckingham. Nothing much ever happened in their neighbourhood, until Dave was forced to take the ride that would change all of their lives forever.
Twenty-five years later, the three find themselves thrust back together by another life altering event – the murder of Jimmy’s 19 year old daughter. Now a cop, Sean is assigned to the case and he and his partner (Laurence Fishburne) are charged with the investigation.
They must also stay one step ahead of Jimmy, a man driven by an all consuming rage to find his daughter’s killer. Connected to the crime by a series of circumstances, Dave is forced to confront the demons of his own past, ones that threaten to destroy his marriage and any hope he may have for a future.
Mystic River is a film that gets everything right, and not just in its authentic depictions of its Boston locations and inhabitants. Eastwood’s directing is focused and unobtrusive, allowing for the power of Brian Helgeland’s solid screenplay adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s novel and a magnificent acting ensemble to shine through.
If Clint has a strong screenplay to work from, his directorial efforts can be good (Bird), bad (True Crime) or – you guessed it – ugly (Blood Work). Eastwood and Helgeland could have easily taken the material, whacked us over the head with sermonising and rewritten Lehane’s story and characters to make them more predictable and accessible for the masses weaned on multiplex junk, but they don’t.
Each character has an aura of unpredictability to them, and the story’s observations on how one violent action can wind up causing even worse reactions down the road are allowed to come alive at the own, unapologetic pace. Eastwood’s directing may be laid back, but that doesn’t make it any less powerful. His terrific, intelligent work here is comparable to his masterpiece Unforgiven, and is equally worthy of all the praise and awards showered on that film a decade ago.
Sean Penn has done a lot of remarkable work over the span of his career, but I am hard-pressed to think of a performance of his that has had the impact that this role has. He perfectly captures Jimmy, allowing, with great ease, the viewer to feel his character’s loss at one moment then cowering in fear of him the next as he plans to take the law into his own hands. It’s a performance of restrained power and raw emotion that is nothing short of stunning.
Robbins, who directed Penn in another one of his best performances, 1995′s Dead Man Walking, is also great as Dave.In many ways, Dave is the trickiest character to convey properly from page to screen. The past still haunts Dave, not only in his nightmares but also in his current everyday world. To effectively express this without spelling it all out for the viewer takes a lot of work, but Robbins does it and does it quite well.
Bacon also excels as Sean, the one person of the trio who left the tight-knit neighborhood for the outside world only to find him back in the thick of things with the murder investigation. Much like Jimmy and Dave, Sean is also faced with choices and decisions throughout the story that are nicely conveyed through his restrained performance. Bacon may get the least amount of onscreen time of the three, but that doesn’t make his work any less important or impressive.
Standouts in the supporting cast include Fishburne as Whitey, Sean’s partner in the investigation, Marcia Gay Harden as Dave’s long-suffering wife Celeste, Laura Linney as Penn’s wife Annabeth and Tom Guiry, who plays Katie’s boyfriend and prime suspect in the murder. Each of the actors is excellent and each manages to carry off an authentic Boston accent without sounding like Elmer Fudd (Kevin Costner, take note)!
Mystic River is a film whose emotional waters run deep. It works fine as a murder mystery, but it’s the characters, their actions, reactions and consequences that will stay with you long after the film ends.
Eastwood has created an intelligent, emotionally honest adult drama that is wrenching to watch at times, but is also exhilarating at the same time. Exhilarating in knowing that there are still some people in American cinema that believe intelligent plot and character are what make a film great, not spectacle and marketing.