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FEATURED FILM - Mystic River 




Mystic River (2003)


Directed by Clint Eastwood


Starring Sean Penn, Kevin Bacon, Tim Robbins, Laurence Fishburne, Laura Linney, Marcia Harden


Rated R

Length 137 minutes


ATTENTION: spoilers!



Based on the novel by Dennis Lehane (2001), Mystic River is about the entangled fates of three lifelong Boston men who were boyhood friends: Jimmy Markum (Sean Penn), Dave Boyle (Tim Robbins), and Sean Divine (Kevin Bacon).  As boys, the three get caught writing their names in wet cement by a man who claims to be a cop (Dave only gets to the second letter of his name).  Dave is fiercely chosen by the man to be forced into a car where an older man waits.  Jimmy and Sean watch as their meek friend is driven away, unknowingly to a remote, four-day sexual brutalizing by two men.  Dave escapes and is never the same.  The boys grow apart, though remain in the neighborhood.  Jimmy, an ex-con, runs a local store and is a husband and father of three girls; Sean is a state cop whose wife has left him; and Dave is an introverted husband and father of a son.


A rapid roll of dire fate starts the night Dave returns from a bar with a knife wound in his belly and a swollen hand.  He tells his wife, Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden), he fended off a mugger.  That same night Jimmy's 19-year-old daughter, Katie (Jimmy's eldest daughter from a previous marriage), is shot and bashed to death.  Jimmy nearly loses his mind with grief that gradually turns to vengefulness.  Sean, along with his more objective partner, Whitey Powers (Laurence Fishburne), is embroiled in the case.  Meanwhile, Dave's wife begins to suspect her husband committed the murder as his behavior deteriorates.  Dave's boyhood trauma has come home to roost, but clarity is lost in the confusion of Katie's murder and the increasing stress of the characters.


At first Katie's secret boyfriend, Brendan Harris, is suspected.  He and Katie had secretly planned to flee to Vegas to get married.  Jimmy had strangely forbidden Katie to socialize with Brendan and his entire family.  But soon Whitey implicates Dave, due to awkward behavior, clumsy alibi, and injuries.  As the investigation deepens, as Celeste's fear of Dave grows, as Jimmy regresses into the criminal temper of his past, and as Dave's psychic identity splits (boy/man), an obvious, misfortunate beeline of destruction materializes.  When Dave's wife tells Jimmy her conclusion of who murdered his dear daughter, old evil seals dooms.  Jimmy takes the law into his own, desperate hands (with help from the local criminals, the Savage brothers).  At the same time, Sean and Whitey discover the true murderer (who I'll not disclose for those who haven't seen the film).  Dave denies guilt of murdering Katie, confessing that he had stumbled upon a male, child prostitute being exploited by an older man in a car.  This triggered his dissolution.  The man cut Dave after being dragged from his car, then Dave pummeled his face into a bloody mess.  Jimmy ignores this explanation, obeys the wild pulse of doom that had been planted back when the three men had been boys, and executes Dave.





A German proverb goes thus: "Revenge converts a little right into a great wrong."  Mishandled sin, pain, and anger contribute to the human cycle of suffering and aggression.  No wonder the majority of our literature and film involves dire error, transferred pain, and vengeance.  Such is inseparable from human history, despite examples of redemption.  Mystic River's characters, in one sense, are flotsam on waves of consequence and fertile evil; in another sense they are one-winged birds nobly attempting to fly.


Aristotle described good drama as effective audience purgation through pity and fear, committed by artistic imitation of human action.  This is best applied in tragic drama, which deals with particular characters and situations in context to universal truths.  And a Complex tragic action entails Reversal of a situation and/or Recognition (which pivot on surprises) and Suffering (destruction, harm, murder, death).  Mystic River, in my estimation, contains these tragic elements, to varying degrees - certainly enough to stand as a worthy modern drama built on the foundations of Greek drama.  (I'm not strictly subordinate to Aristotle's prescriptions, by the way.  But he had some good points.)


Good tragedy derives its power from depicting a fall from fortune due to some (usually surprising) folly or weakness or miscalculation.  And we see this in a few of the film's aspects: Dave's trust in the child-molesting "cop", Jimmy's criminal secret, Jimmy's strict restriction of Katie from Brendan's family and Katie's mutual love with Brendan, Dave's disintegration after confronting the contemporary child molester (a sort of Recognition that awakens a feeling), Celeste's misinterpretation of Dave's meltdown and injuries, Celeste's confidence in Jimmy, Jimmy's insistence on dealing "justice" to Dave despite Dave's pleading explanation of the real events, and the overlooked culprit of the murder who is discovered too late.  Mistaken actions are taken and suffering results from mistakes built on mistakes built on mistakes.  Situations are reversed by misjudgment and rashness.  The human condition: evil and error perpetuating themselves, passing through generations as disease through blood.  And, yes, blood spilling because of spilled blood.  Sin begetting sin, hacking even the innocents who stand by.  (I am reminded of Faulkner's sublime depiction of error-based tragic hero, Thomas Sutpen, in Absalom, Absalom!  Sutpen desires pure, male descendents for his obsession-driven dynasty.  Then his son brings home a college friend who courts his daughter.  Who is this friend?  A "mixed-blood" bastard son from Sutpen's secret past!  The story spirals into Sutpen's manipulation of his son to eventually murder this dangerous materialization of immutable fate.)


Although Jimmy falls from his hard-won decency, he is not an intact Aristotlean tragic hero.  Jimmy's actions and consequences are partly results of criminal vice and merited misfortune.  He committed a horrible sin years and years before that involved Brendan's father - and ironically Brendan becomes involved with Jimmy's beloved, favorite Katie.  Eventually this relationship sparks Katie's untimely death.  (Jimmy says to his dead daughter, "I know in my soul I contributed to your death.")  The tumult preys on Jimmy's decency and self-control, causing him to regress into his former behavior. Jimmy's descent into vengeance blindly seals Dave's unmerited fate (which checks as more aptly tragic).


I see a profound similarity between Jimmy Markum and William Munney in Eastwood's Western masterpiece, Unforgiven (1992).  Unforgiven (note its telling title) also involves sinful pasts, redeeming paths, revenge, and recapitulative habits and horrors.  William Munney, once a drunken, cold-hearted, murderous gunman, has established a homestead and a family.  Even after his dear wife dies he continues to raise his children, barely holding together ailing livestock, etc.  In need of money, he reluctantly gets involved in a bounty killing set up by whores who seek justice the law simply won't acknowledge.  By the film's end, Munney's civilized identity is stripped away, he's taken to booze, and his former, murderous instincts are in full bloom.  Like Jimmy, his past lifestyle is ever-knocking, overwhelming in times of extreme stress.


Of course, Unforgiven and Mystic River share the debunking and dethroning of typically sanitized revenge.  In Unforgiven, despite the guilt of one of the bountied men, the bravado-spewing Schoefield Kid breaks down after killing the man.  He admits to Munney that he lied about his former murders.  This was his first.  It doesn't seem real; the Kid realizes the blaze of vengeance (even hired vengeance) is not as bright as fantasy would have it.  Munney sums it up: "Hell of a thing, killin' a man. Take away all he's got and all he's ever gonna have."  Revenge ultimately doesn't solve anything.  It just compounds the mess.  It's like an explosive, irresponsible sexual act -- and the guilt afterward.  "We bury our sins here, Dave. We wash them clean," says Jimmy.  But the sins aren't so easily washed clean.


But the more interesting parallel I've noted between the two films is the final showdown between William Munney and Little Bill, the hulk-egoed sheriff.  The climactic scene in Mystic, which culminates with Jimmy shooting Dave, reminded me of this, although the scenes are not totally congruous.  Munny has the upper-hand on Little Bill and aims a shotgun at him.  Munny's regression is evident in his crazed eyes.  Little Bill, like Dave, is on his back, completely helpless.  And Little Bill says, "I don't deserve die like this. I was building a house."   Throughout Unforgiven he had been attempting to build his own house, but (as everyone in the town knew) he's an incompetent carpenter.  The leaky, uneven roof is a comedic bit in the story.  Bill tries, all the same, with his limited ability.  When facing sure death, he mentions the house, since it's an immediate example of unfinished business.  Life is seldom complete, "wrapped up", at the moment of termination.  Likewise, after Dave realizes that Jimmy will indeed end his life, he mentions that he couldn't finish (probably remembering his failure to etch his entire name in the wet cement as a boy).  Dave tried to build himself a normal life, a healthy structure, but his competence was limited by his unresolved abuse.  He had mustered a leaky peace, an instable identity.  And truly, as Little Bill put it, because of his innocence and Jimmy's rash mistake, he "don't deserve this".


Oddly, Dave's recognition of his own fatal flaw, his identity crisis, rends him further apart, so that he gradually loses accurate recognition of himself.  (Is he the fleeing, raped boy or the adult Dave or a walking-dead leftover from the boyhood horror?)  And his well-meaning, albeit crazed saving of the boy prostitute results ironically in others' perceived suspicion of his old friend's daughter's grisly murder.  Because of child abuse is such a complex and sickening thing, folks tend to be unable to cope with its reality.  Even Dave's wife assumes his capacity to coldly murder instead of trying to really understand his plight.  The jerk runs to the very wrong person to share her conclusions, sentencing Dave to undeserved execution without jury.


Filmic drama (rooted in Greek plays), of course, varies in worthiness.  The blockbuster-guaranteed "revenge" movies that depict betrayed and/or abused characters gaining an upper hand and striking back with full force belong on a lower scale.  Typically the protagonist (whether virtuous or unscrupulous) deals the vengeance and is simply better off for it.  Further grief or consequences aren't addressed.  The sunset awaits.  This may entertain, appealing to our basic aggression and suppressed instinct to lash out when wronged, but is less important than experiencing revenge's aftermath, its not-so-simple pervasiveness.  The hero is not always improved or expiated of pain after the smoke clears.


Clint Eastwood is no stranger to plots involving covered sins, revenge, and revenge's bitter fruit.  He went from starring as tough loners who gouged an eye for an eye and rode of into horizons to directing laudable films like Unforgiven.  Eastwood probably observed the great Sergio Leone's attention to evil's proliferation and the historical dance of vengeance, a pulsating cycle, a see-saw of action and reaction, punch and returned punch.  Leone's films matured from the rather straightforward A Fistful Of Dollars to Once Upon A Time In America (where the hero is faced with a sure-fire chance of warranted revenge and sadly declines, tired of the cycle).  Eastwood certainly learned from the great Don Siegel (famous for films like Two Mules For Sister Sara, Dirty Harry, and The Shootist - six starring Clint) in the idea of revenge, hero and villain, and film direction.


Mystic's direction is splendid.  Eastwood seldom "overdoes" a scene; he allows actors to shine or sag.  His camera is often in motion, craning, tracking, rising like a spirit from humanity and landscape below.  Close-ups are used wisely, usually for profound moments of realization or spoken exposition.  Mystic moves from wider, less intimate shots to tighter ones as the story and tension intensifies, as ends meet, and as knots unravel.  Composer Lennie Niehaus did the score, which reflects Clint's respect for jazz music.  I don't particularly like Clint's musical choices in his films, and I found Mystic River's score to be mostly dry, with a few pertinent, effective moments.  At least Eastwood isn't yet another rock-jam-for-every-scene director.  The once-clever use of pop-music by folks like Scorsese has largely been rendered a cliche.  (I think Crowe and Tarantino have maintained an apt command, though.)


Eastwood's exposition unfolds gradually, mainly through questions and answers (wonderfully done by the investigating duo, Sean and Whitey).  Faces are free to emote.  Sean Penn, surely one of today's best, most versatile actors (along with Tom Cruise), portrays Jimmy's initial shock and grief and subsequent ire with precision and absolute believability.  Tim Robbins succeeds in showing Dave's subdued identity breakdown, using lethargic speech, sad eyes, a face almost always half-frozen in deep, deep reflection.  Kevin Bacon also excels at his role, although Sean's story is not so poignant as the others'.  I gathered that his wife had left because he had neglected her, but the predictable reconciliation by the end capped off a rather flimsy construction of marital conflict.  There is a notable antagonism between Sean and Jimmy in Lehane's novel, as well as a closer liking between Jimmy and Dave: "Jimmy had liked Dave...Just something about the kid...even if half the time you didn't even notice him".  But these dynamics are much weaker in the film.  Instead, the three film characters seem almost totally removed from their mutual boyhoods, leaving the masterful actors to shine separately in each role.


Laurence Fishburne as Whitey Powers is a splendid choice on Eastwood's part.  The novel has Whitey as an Irish man.  In the film he's an imposing black man.  This works so well on two levels.  First, it accentuates Whitey's role as objective observer and commentary.  Similar to the reporter in Citizen Kane (but with more involvement and opinion), Whitey has the advantage of almost total separation from the neighborhood web.  His race, among the dominant Irish population, accompanies his professional, insightful authority.  Secondly, the very name given to a black man is un-PC humorous: Whitey Powers.  (Knock off a letter from the words and you're left with White Power.  Just for the hell of it.)  Fishburne nailed this role, as they say.


One of the best choices in the film accompanied the worst choice in the film.  Eastwood chose to depict Dave's boyhood molestation scenes suggestively rather than graphically.  We get flashes rather than straight revelation.  Eastwood has asserted that just because something is real doesn't mean it has to be seen.  What ruined the handling for me was a lazy appeal to cliché.  When young Dave Boyle is coerced into the molestors' car, the older man in the passenger seat turns and leeringly grins.  The man wears a ring with a cross that glints in the sunlight.  In a later scene of the remote place of torment, the two men enter Dave's dark cell for another round and the older man wears a cross necklace that seems to glow.  This overdone image, mixing licentiousness with Christianity, is both insulting and foolish.  The cross does not a pervert make.  Only scum acting in spite of such belief perpetrate heinous crimes.  I'm sure there are atheists, Hindus, Muslims, etc., who commit such sick crimes.  WE GET IT, CLINT.  It's stale and stupid.  The film is much too clever to resort to such knee-jerk coupling.  I'm surprised there wasn't a gun enthusiast who drove a pickup truck and was secretly excited in the men's locker room.  (Consider the cheap cliches in that overrated crapheap, American Beauty, for instance.)  NEXT!  Geeze.


Although Mystic River primarily sustained a riveting, patient pace, it broke down a bit near the end.  The quality noticeably lessened.  I've noted that Stephen King's novels often are so: strong until the closing chapters, then somewhat rushed, cheapened, flimsy.  Mystic River, however, wasn't ruined by this.  I think the blame goes to the story, at least as far as it had been adapted to screenplay.


As for the film's effective twists, I usually make accurate guesses early in these types of smart "whodunit" films, and Mystic River was no exception.  But my guess wasn't easy.  As I've said, I won't disclose the secret.  That's one spoiler I think could ruin the fun.  The film cleverly circles the truth, building suspense and frustration.  Concern for who really is the killer sometimes even fades, dominated by the aftermath's drama and the impressive acting.


Once again, Malpaso Productions created a formidable, important, smart film.  From child abuse's rigors to grief's thin line between acceptance and vengeance, Lehane's novel, I'm sure, has been adapted justly.  Mystic River shows the power of sin, the force of consequences, unchecked anger's folly and proliferation -- even into otherwise uninvolved lives, even at innocents' expense.  Some human elements will never be fully conquered, thus the cycle of glory and evil will always be ripe for art, particularly based on tragic drama.  And questions of our own thin "innocence" will always arise, highlighted during stress, crashing in on us despite our desperate grappling after peace, forgiveness, and spiritual health.  Who can claim innocence?  From where can genuine forgiveness be found?  Who is worthy of redemption?


In Unforgiven, what I consider a sister film to Mystic River, Strawberry Alice, a whore, chides Little Bill for beating up William Munney: "You just kicked the shit out of an innocent man."  And Little Bill snaps back: "Innocent? Innocent of what?"




review by D. Herrle 4/2004



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