Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Mystic River

Clint Eastwood's latest film as a director, Mystic River, is an incredibly serious film. So serious, in fact, that for much of its running time (about 2 hrs. 20 min.), it is burdened under its own weight.

Mystic River is so jam-packed with psychological density, so intent on picking apart the sludgy motives of its characters, that the film ends up acting very much like a black hole---that is, not one sliver of light can escape its overwhelming force. Put simply, the film throws such heavy doses of reality and Machiavellian ethics our way, that it becomes difficult to sift through them, much less assimilate them into a pleasurable viewing experience.

Yes, Mystic River isn't much fun; the film wearing a consistent scowl that is incredibly difficult to swallow----nonetheless, Mystic River is a film that succeeds very well, at least on some levels----even if we end up leaving the theater thoroughly shaken and bitter.

I have rarely seen a film where the entire cast is as excellent as they are in Mystic River. Credit Eastwood as director for leading his group of actors down territory that would leave lesser mortals quavering in fear. Sean Penn, who plays the film's dark, tortured avenger, Jimmy Markham, handles his role with a degree of subtlety and nuance that is all too rare these days. Jimmy, who
is distraught over the senseless murder of his eldest daughter, is a character who consistently skirts the edges of moral and ethical rectitude, yet the grief over the death of his daughter seems painfully real. In a scene in which Jimmy's father-in-law visits him shortly after his daughter's death, the father-in-law needles him about his continued responsibility to his family, especially his wife and stepdaughters. Jimmy replies: "I just lost my daughter, and you're talking to me about fucking family responsibility!" We feel every ounce of Jimmy's pain in this scene, and this is why Penn's performance is so believable. Granted, there is much too much of this sort of thing in Mystic River, so much that we get bogged down in it; yet, Jimmy's pain, brought across to us by the masterly Penn, cannot be dismissed.

If Sean Penn is excellent, then Tim Robbins matches him step for step. Robbins, who plays Dave Boyle, a friend of Jimmy's from childhood, plays a man who is the equivalent of the walking dead. In a freak twist of fate (depicted in the film's first scene) Dave becomes the victim of sexual abuse as a child. Dave grows to maturity as a man who can never throw off the tragic events of his childhood, referring to himself repeatedly as "the boy who barely escaped by becoming a wolf." The boy/wolf trope becomes the main trope whenever we encounter Jimmy in the film, coupled with Dave's repeated references to vampires and the undead. As an actor, Robins chooses to deliver Dave's lines in an eerie monotone, emphasizing Dave's willful disconnectedness from the rest of the world----a disconnectedness that has to be there in order for Dave to raise his son, Michael, as well as to have any sort of relationship with his wife, Celeste. In what is probably the film's most effective scene, the camera focuses in on Dave as he watches a vampire movie on television. As his wife enters the room, Dave delivers a creepy, labyrinthine monologue about vampires and child prostitutes, all of this spoken with a haunted gleam in his eye, as if his wife were not even present in the room. This scene really clinches Dave's character for us as viewers, so much so, that we should feel sick to our stomachs about
happens to him by film's end. Dave Boyle is one of the most interesting, most tragic, characters I have encountered on screen in a while; and even though Sean Penn delivers what is probably the performance of his career, Tim Robbins steals the show from him, nonetheless.

As was mentioned earlier, everyone else in this cast, down to the smallest role, is nothing short of stellar. Marcia Gay Harden is appropriately distraught and wide-eyed in her depiction of Celeste, Dave's wife, who cannot understand her own husbands psychic territory. Kevin Bacon, who plays Sean (now a police detective), the last of the three friends from childhood that Mystic River involves itself with, balances his feelings of loyalty and friendship with his drive to solve the murder of Jimmy's daughter.....I have no qualms in declaring Mystic River an actorly cornucopia, that will be appreciated by anyone (myself included) who has ever acted for any length of time. The performances in Mystic River probably won't be equaled (in terms of density and complexity) by any other film this year, and I can live with that.

Still, the actorly feast in Mystic River aside, the film is simply a bit much. Too dense as a film, too slow and murky, and way, way too serious. Granted, if Eastwood had let up on the film's overly serious tone, we would probably have lost much in the slew of great performances that we are treated to. Yet, if Eastwood would have only let a few rays of light into this film, it would have been a much easier film to swallow, and probably an even better film than it ultimately turned out to be.

Originally published in FilmChaw 2003. Image courtesy of www.reelingreviews.com

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