erasing clouds

Mystic River

reviewed by dave heaton

With his 2001 novel Mystic River, Dennis Lehane broke a bit from his string of more conventional detective novels by writing what was nominally a murder mystery but in heart more of a character study. The tale of three childhood friends whose lives were disrupted by a horrific event--the abduction and sexual molestation of one of them--and the slightly damaged (some more than others) adults they've become was still as suspenseful as you'd want a mystery novel to be, but more than that it took you inside of people who are in complex emotional states, examining the complicated effects of terrible actions. In 2003, Clint Eastwood has directed a film adaptation of the novel which drains the source material of its emotional impact and its effectiveness as a mystery. The film has been instantly acclaimed as a classic, but why? In Eastwood and screenwriter Brian Helgeland's hands Mystic River rings as emotionally false as the most obvious made-for-TV tearjerker and is as predictable as an episode of Murder She Wrote.

In Mystic River the three main characters are played by Sean Penn, Kevin Bacon, and Tim Robbins; their performances almost make the praise the film has received understandable. As Dave Boyle, the man who was abducted as a child, Robbins captures precisely the demeanor of the walking wounded, of a man filled with hurt even years after the fact. Penn plays Jimmy Markum, the bad-boy, would-be crime lord turned shop owner whose daughter's murder brings the three men back together. His barely captive anger at the world comes through powerfully in his performance. His grief at his daughter's death mostly does, too, though the film overall encourages him to overplay it a bit. As Sean Devine, the third friend who is also the main detective investigating the case, Kevin Bacon embodies the role in believably level-headed way, which is only mucked up via the film's awkward attempts to give his character more depth (through rather silly scenes involving his estranged wife calling him but not saying anything).

The supporting cast is filled with excellent actors as well--Lawrence Fishburne is especially good as Sean's partner, but there's also Marcia Gay Harden as Dave's wife, Laura Linney as Jimmy's wife, and Tom Giury as Jimmy's daughter's boyfriend. Yet far too many of these actors have too little to go on; their characters are desperately underwritten. One of the main problems with Mystic River lies here, in how little attention is paid to its characters. Many of the actions and statements of the supporting characters, especially Linney and Harden's characters, seem completely out of the blue to the audience since we've been introduced to them in such a brief fashion. Most of these characters' most important scenes are cut so briefly that they pass by without us gaining anything from them. But even the characters who fill most of the film's time are mere sketches of human beings. If Penn and Robbins weren't the actors they are, their characters would be just as mysterious to us, for nearly everything we learn about who these people are comes from their expressions, from they way they walk. So much of the dialogue is aimed at giving the film extra weight, not at character development, and it shows.

The film opens with a sweeping overhead shot of Boston, accompanied by Clint Eastwood's bombastic score, an amorphous work of music that exists only to hammer into you how important the story is and how moved you should feel. The score might seem like an insignificant element to pick on, but the clumsiness of it echoes the tone of the entire film, which is filled with the sort of obvious symbolism and ham-fisted sentimentality that is usually the mark of the amateur filmmaker or storyteller. For example, when Dave is abducted, he's in the middle of writing his name in cement but is interrupted after "Da", so several times in the film we zoom in dramatically on the sidewalk to remind us that Dave's childhood was interrupted. Another example: a flashback to young Dave's escape through the woods after his abduction is cut to any time the adult Dave makes a relatively oblique reference to the incident. Who needs Eastwood to tell us these things? It's as if he doesn't trust the viewer enough to just let us watch the story and get from it what we will. He's like the obnoxious student in class who keeps raising his hand to show the teacher how much he knows, making everyone else think, "Ok, we get it already!" Eastwood's sabotage of the emotional force of the film might not be as troublesome if the murder mystery was compelling enough to make up for it. Yet the film focuses so much time to Jimmy Markum's grief that the mystery plotline itself is trimmed down to its essence. What's left is one of those mysteries where there's so few suspects that anyone paying any attention at all can figure out "whodunit."

Why is Mystic River being praised as one of the best American films of the last few decades? It doesn't take Sherlock Holmes to figure out why--it's nearly written in bold in review after review. When a young director makes a film that depicts the painful aftershocks of violence, it isn't a big deal. But when Clint Eastwood, the movie star who himself dished out the killings in so many films, makes a film which even touches on the idea that killing people isn't always so noble, it's a major event. As the headline for the Portland Oregonian's review put it, "Eastwood Themes Lift Mystic River." Nevermind that these themes--the revenge, guilt and power games behind violence--are dealt with in a half-formed way that's hardly new or insightful. Nevermind that the visual and storytelling techniques are first-year-of-film-school material. Nevermind that the film uses so many of its characters as empty props and devices. Just let the music, and the hype, tell you what to think.

Issue 17, November 2003

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