Mystic River Review

Early one Sunday morning in a working class suburb of Boston, detectives Sean Devine (Kevin Bacon) and Whitey Powers (Laurence Fishburne) are called to a crime scene. A car has been found abandoned beside a park, its interior covered with blood. Nearby, store owner and reformed criminal Jimmy Markum (Sean Penn) and his wife Annabeth (Laura Linney) are preparing for their youngest daughter's first holy communion. Jimmy's angry because his eldest girl Katie is nowhere to be found. In another household, Celeste Boyle (Marcia Gay Harden) is concerned about her husband Dave (Tim Robbins), who came home the previous night wounded and bloody. He claims he was the victim of an attempted mugging and he may have killed his attacker. As the morning draws on and police cars howl through the neighbourhood, Jimmy becomes more and more worried about his daughter, who has still failed to show up. Back in the park, the cops have made a grisly discovery: the body of Katie Markum lying sprawled underneath a grate. She's been beaten and repeatedly shot.

So begins Mystic River, Clint Eastwood's 24th film as director and quite possibly his best, even taking into account Unforgiven. Based on a novel by crime writer Dennis Lehane, it's part police procedural, part character study and part tragedy. The three principal characters, Sean, Jimmy and Dave are childhood friends who grew up in the same rundown neighbourhood. Their lives were changed irrevocably when Dave was abducted in front of his friends by a pair of paedophiles posing as policemen and abused for four days before he escaped. Although Dave has managed to build a reasonably normal life for himself and has a wife and child, he's never fully gotten over the ordeal. Sean and Jimmy, while sympathetic, have kept a certain distance from him, a common reaction to people who have suffered cruelties we'd rather not think too much about. They themselves have chosen very different courses. While Sean is a homicide detective, Jimmy used to be a notorious thief and has served time for robbery.

There's a lot more to the story and many more characters. There's Katie's boyfriend Brendan (Tom Guiry), who she'd been seeing in secret because of her dad's unexplained distaste for him. There are the Savage brothers (Kevin Chapman and Adam Nelson), a pair of thugs from Jimmy's criminal past who are shadowing the cops and asking their own questions. Jimmy may be straight now but he still lives by the law of the street and he's not inclined to leave the investigation of his daughter's murder, or the punishment, to the police. The investigation by Detectives Devine and Powers is not only struggling against contradictory evidence and lying suspects but racing against time to beat Jimmy and his boys to the culprit. Unknown to all of them, Celeste Boyle is suffering silently as she watches her husband go to pieces and she realises with mounting dread that she alone may know the identity of the killer.

Taken as a simple detective story, Mystic River is an example of the genre at its gritty best. The murder investigation unfolds credibly and the characters, both police and suspects, behave and react like human beings with intelligence and emotions, not like pawns of the plot. I liked the way the detectives were portrayed. Movie cops are usually cowboys with badges (something Clint Eastwood would know about!) but Bacon and Fishburne play weary professionals who see death and heartbreak every day, plug away at their cases and face guns rarely enough to be upset by the experience. On top of the detective story however, Mystic River is also a powerful human drama. As the civilians and former friends caught up in the tragedy, Sean Penn and Tim Robbins are both exceptional. Penn can add Jimmy Markum, vengeful small-time criminal, to his long list of outstanding performances while Robbins reminds you how good he was in The Player and The Shawshank Redemption. Both should be strong contenders for next year's Oscars.

So should Clint Eastwood, whose usually straightforward directing style takes on an almost operatic edge. In the past he's preferred to keep emotion subdued in his work but this time he's made a film about emotion - grief, rage, sorrow, guilt - and he builds to a devastating climax that left me shaken. While Eastwood backs off from excessive directorial flourishes, there's definitely a touch of Martin Scorsese in his work here, which is appropriate enough for a film about violent working-class Catholics. Another director who comes to mind is Spike Lee, who's similarly interested in putting characters in extreme situations and seeing what moral choices they make. Reflecting this change of style, the director's own music score is sweeping and orchestral this time rather than his regular jazz and blues. Credit should also go to screenwriter Brian Helgeland, who adapted LA Confidential, for another excellent job of condensing a thick, complex novel into a film of reasonable length.

Mystic River bears similarities to another film about childhood friendship, paedophilia, revenge and murder - Barry Levinson's Sleepers, which also coincidentally featured Kevin Bacon. I found that film to be unsatisfying and a little discomforting. Whether or not it was based on a true case (the subject of much controversy at the time), it was a revenge fantasy posing as a thoughtful drama. Eastwood's film is a much more credible and intelligent take. It's careful to observe without condemning. Without giving too much away, by the closing credits we've seen several major characters commit terrible acts yet in every case we can understand why they did it and we have to confront whether we'd have behaved differently. Eastwood and his actors make us care about these people so deeply that we want them to make the right choice as much for their own sake as that of the people they're going to hurt. Sadly, inevitably, most of them don't.

Overall

9

out of 10

Last updated: 23/06/2018 16:38:43

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