Mystic River (2003) is another entry in the “misery guts” side of Clint Eastwood’s ledger. Adapted from Dennis Lehane’s novel, the story is convoluted, slow-moving, implausible and engrossing (all of which it has in common with Lehane’s other page-to-screen success, Shutter Island).
We are introduced to Sean, Jimmy and Dave when they are children. Their days are about as idyllic as those spent in 1970s urban Boston can be – while their dads hang out on the porch talking sports, they play on the street, they lose their baseball down a storm water drain, and they write their names on the sidewalk in drying concrete. Y’know – kids’ stuff.
Things swiftly take a veer to the dark when the boys are caught “defacing municipal property” by two paedophiles pretending to be cops (one of them, John Doman, later went on to play Rawls in The Wire). Quickly determining that Dave is the most compliant and least confident of the three, they bundle him in the back of their car and drive him ‘to the station’. The camera lingers first on Dave’s ashen face as he peers out the rear window at Jimmy and Sean, and then on his unfinished signature on the sidewalk. Subtlety is not an Eastwood strong point, but with an opening this melodramatic who cares?
We meet the three boys again as middle-aged men. Jimmy (Sean Penn) still lives in the neighbourhood – he’s been in and out of prison but is now settled with his lovely wife and three daughters, and runs a local store. Dave (Tim Robbins) also still lives in the area, is married and devoted to his son but is haunted by what happened to him during the four days of his kidnapping. Sean (Kevin Bacon) has moved “across the river” and is a homicide detective. He can’t seem to locate his estranged wife, who has the creepy habit of ringing him up only to breathe in his ear for a few seconds before hanging up again.
Their lives intersect again when Jimmy’s beloved eldest daughter by his first wife is murdered (Eastwood has yet to meet a young actress he doesn’t want to see die onscreen). Sean is assigned the case and Dave, who has other reasons for being fearful of the police, becomes a suspect. Told you it was implausible – and that’s not even the start of how much belief the viewer is asked to suspend. The saving grace of the set-up is that it shows, rather than tells, how Jimmy and Sean dealt with being “the lucky ones” who escaped Dave’s tragedy. Jimmy slid into petty criminality; Sean became an avenger of sorts.
With a cast like this, Eastwood can pretty much just sit back and let the actors go for it. Thank Oscar we’d had the over-doting dad setup, or Penn’s scene here would be pure histrionics:
Like Shutter Island, Lehane uses the father of a murdered daughter to explore psychological breakdown and a quest for revenge gone horribly, tragically wrong. And like Shutter Island, that father is married to a woman who has dark depths of her own. The great difference between the two film treatments is that Shutter Island spends some time slowly revealing her, and Mystic River is all but disinterested in her. Laura Linney is a terrific actress, but her character is given no development whatsoever. This makes her final and only substantial scene, in which she is unmasked as more ruthless than Lady Macbeth, feel like it was spliced in from a totally different script. The only previous hint of her iron will is when she sharply reminds Jimmy, fretting about his eldest, that he has “two other daughters”. Marcia Gay Harden, as Dave’s wife, fares somewhat better – but she’s less a character than a plot device, there to serve Dave up to Jimmy.
The film looks beautiful, the screen awash in thematically appropriate shades of grey. The acting is fantastic. Yet as accomplished as Mystic River is, Eastwood seems to be trying to impart a moral without knowing what that moral is. By focusing so intently on Jimmy’s palpable grief, it’s clear we’re meant to feel sympathy for him even as he murders the hapless Dave. His actions are meant to be understandable, and on some level, at least, excusable. Yet Eastwood also wants to remind us that vigilantism is wrong, m’kay?, because Sean and his partner (Laurence Fishburne, so woefully under-used he may as well wear a shirt with the slogan “Token Black Guy”) do eventually get around to getting the baddie.
Jimmy gets over his remorse pretty quickly, and even Sean doesn’t seem that bothered that the pair of them have managed to fail Dave even more spectacularly than they did when they were kids. This moral ambiguity would be all right if it weren’t so apparent that Eastwood is really, really trying to tell you something, but can’t because he’s confused about what that something is.