- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 7, 2003

Clint Eastwood’s “Mystic River” wants to be primal tragedy. Instead, it is a portentous and creaky exercise in morbid pulp depicting two generations of misery in a Boston neighborhood that borders Ol’ Man Mystic, which jes’ keeps rollin’, unmindful of the mobsters who use it as a convenient graveyard.

Derived from a crime novel by Dennis Lehane, the movie begins with a harrowing prologue that evokes a brutal deception from a generation earlier. Three neighborhood lads — Jimmy, Dave and Sean — are playing street hockey on their block and decide to carve their names in a fresh patch of cement. This gesture beckons instant retribution in the form of an angry motorist who purports to be a cop and abducts Dave to conclude his tirade.

Mr. Eastwood, whose camera frequently wanders aloft in search of divine inspiration or serenity or something, permits a glimpse of an actual police car within hailing or sprinting distance of the crisis. Two of the boys’ fathers also appear to be just around a corner. Nevertheless, Dave becomes a sacrificial lamb. Four days later he returns, having escaped from a basement dungeon and the degenerates who molested him.

The remainder of the plot takes place in the present, where the former boyhood friends, no longer close, cross paths in the wake of a new calamity: the violent death of Jimmy’s daughter. Sean Penn is the adult Jimmy. The proprietor of a grocery in the same neighborhood, he is eventually revealed to be an ex-con and a brutally vindictive local mobster.

Dave, who also resides in the neighborhood, is embodied by Tim Robbins as a Walking Wounded caricature. He was one of the last people to see the victim, 19-year-old Katie (Emily Rossum), a vivacious and restless girl, on the night of her murder. They happened to be in the same crowded saloon. An hour later, a murky set of circumstances led to her death by gunfire soon after fleeing from her car. Suspiciously, Dave arrived home the same night bleeding from hideous knife gashes in his stomach, an unreported injury that frightens and torments his compatibly woebegone spouse, Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden), as both police and Dave’s minions begin investigating Katie’s murder.

Since it’s a small world in Boston, the third boy, Sean, has grown into Kevin Bacon, one of the homicide detectives assigned to the case. Sean must cope with a token heartache on the side: His phantom spouse, a runaway, keeps distracting him with breather calls from out of town.

Happily, Sean also has a sidekick called Whitey, a trick token role for Laurence Fishburne. Mr. Fishburne gives the audience a break by remaining genial and nosy, healthily estranged from all the miseries past and present that haunt the Accursed Trio of Jimmy-Dave-Sean.

Laboring under a curse of indiscriminate naturalism, Mr. Eastwood permits Mr. Penn to overact in a seething and explosive fashion and Mr. Robbins to do the same in an insufferably pathetic fashion. A great deal of class condescension and Oscar lust also appear to be motivating these unrestrained eruptions and blubberings.

You’re reminded that Mr. Penn and Mr. Robbins practiced far more restraint when collaborating as actor and director, respectively, on “Dead Man Walking.” With Mr. Eastwood as their guide, the two actors compete in a self-pity contest that spirals out of control. Even so, they lose the pathos laurel to Marcia Gay Harden, genuinely touching in a scene where she unburdens her suspicions to Mr. Penn.

Viewed as mystery, the material is heavy-handed. After brandishing two conspicuous suspects in Katie’s death, the focus shifts to the far periphery of the plot as time is running out. Belated alternates pop out of the wings, far too late. Laura Linney seems a curious choice for the minor role of Jimmy’s spouse, until the plot gets so cluttered down the stretch that she emerges as an embryonic Lady Macbeth. Which begs the question: Why wasn’t this unsavory royal marriage examined in more detail?

Mr. Eastwood’s last lingering overhead implies that Ol’ Man Mystic knows all. But he’s no squealer.

*1/2

TITLE: “Mystic River”

RATING: R (Sustained ominous atmosphere; graphic violence and profanity; occasional sexual candor, including episodes about an abducted and molested child)

CREDITS: Directed by Clint Eastwood. Screenplay by Brian Helgeland, based on the novel by Dennis Lehane. Cinematography by Tom Stern. Production design by Henry Bumstead. Costume design by Deborah Hopper. Music by Mr. Eastwood

RUNNING TIME: 137 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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