MYSTIC RIVER

3 Stars
Year Released: 2003
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 127 minutes
Click to Expand Credits:

You’ve heard the expression “a bad neighborhood?” The forlorn working class Boston outpost that serves as the setting for Clint Eastwood’s latest is the ultimate bad neighborhood, a dozen or so blocks in which more bad things happen per capita than would normally take place outside a prison or war zone.

Of course, it is a prison and a war zone too. Based on the harrowing novel by Dennis Lehane, Mystic River is a Whitman Sampler of misfortune, a variety pack of pain the emotional gut punch of which arises from the statistically curious fact that virtually everyone in it has been stricken by tragedy.

Let me count the bummers: Sean Penn plays an ex-con whose beautiful 19 year old daughter has just been beaten and shot to death. His world is turned upside down and he won’t rest until he finds and kills the person responsible.

Kevin Bacon is a state trooper whose wife has just walked out on him taking their newborn daughter with her. She has the odd habit of calling him on his cell phone at all hours but not saying a word.
They’re lottery winners though compared with Tim Robbins. He juggles three Greek-quality tragedies at once:

As little boys, the three were best friends. Life changed forever for them one day when a pair of pedophiles masquerading as policemen forced Robbins to get in their car and drove off with him. After four days in a dark basement, he managed to get away but, as the film reminds us again and again, he’s never really escaped. Now in his thirties, he’s marginally employed, more and more haunted by memories and filled with mounting rage.

The poor guy couldn’t have picked a worse time to suffer a total psychological collapse. His mental meltdown has the unfortunate effect of straining his marriage to an increasingly worried woman played by Marcia Gay Harden. And that doesn’t help matters when he comes under suspicion for the murder of Penn’s child as part of an investigation conducted by boyhood pal Bacon.

Second tier sufferers include Penn’s wife (Laura Linney), their daughter’s bereaved boyfriend and his brother, who is a mute. Pain and tragedy saturate the air in this place and it would look and feel even more like Oprah Winfrey Book Club country if it weren’t for the poetry of several smaller moments (the father placing his daughter’s burial dress over her body in the morgue, for example) and the power behind some of the central performances. Penn’s is not so interesting at first. He all but shakes his fist at the heavens when he gets the bad news. What’s far more impressive is the way he gathers the storm clouds of his character from that point on, shapeshifting before our eyes from inconsolable dad to gangster to dark avenger.

Robbins too offers a master class. He transforms himself into a crumpled hulk and convinces you that behind those bewildered eyes, darting and rolling back like a broken doll’s, something horrible and unstoppable is taking form.

But what are we meant to take from Eastwood’s smorgasbord of misery, hands down the feel-bad film of the year? The picture delivers emoting aplenty but higher meaning? I don’t know. In the end, what have we learned-that life can be cruel? That men and women can be cruel? That ordinary human beings placed under extraordinary pressure are capable of anything? These aren’t exactly bulletins and, as for the film’s dramatic impact, well, let’s be honest: cram this much unhappy stuff between opening and closing credits and you’re bound to send folks out of the theater feeling as though they’ve experienced something significant.

In this case, though, I’m just not sure it’s anything as significant as art.



Posted on October 21, 2003 in Reviews by
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