As director Clint Eastwood has suffered a long dry spell since “Unforgiven” in 1992. Of the films he’s made over the last decade, the only ones that reached the tolerable level were “The Bridges of Madison County” (1995), simply because it wasn’t as awful as the source novel, and “Space Cowboys” (2000), which wasn’t really good but had a certain geriatric charm. But is there anyone in creation who would want to sit through “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” again? And even though last year’s “Blood Work” marked the beginnings of an upturn, it was sill no great shakes.
That’s why the excellence of “Mystic River” is so surprising. It isn’t that it’s a brilliant piece of work from a technical perspective. Like most of Eastwood’s films it’s competently staged, more workmanlike than remarkable but making solid use of its Boston locations, and it’s cleanly photographed by Tom Stern. And the script by Brian Helgeland, while literate and well-crafted, is very talky, with a resolution to the murder mystery at the core of the plot that seems strained, even by the conventions of the genre.
But what Eastwood’s presentation does offer is a sense of almost classically understated simplicity and elegance that allows the story’s threads to tug at the viewer more subtly–and ultimately more intensely–than they would if the treatment were more extroverted and bombastic. And what the screenplay provides–and presumably the book by Dennis Lehane on which it’s based as well–are undercurrents of repressed violence, passed from generation to generation, that give the conventional whodunit satisfying layers of emotion and meaning. Moreover, the tale is given vibrancy by a cast that brings all of its exceptional talent to bear on the material, giving it unusual weight and power. Sean Penn is at his high-strung best as Jimmy Markum, an ex-con who’s now the loving father of three girls and the owner of a convenience store in the Irish neighborhood where he and his best buddies grew up. His childhood pals were Sean Devine (Kevin Bacon), now a Massachusetts state homicide detective, and Dave Boyle (Tim Robbins), who was traumatized when he was abducted by child molesters as a kid while his friends looked helplessly on, and who’s never recovered though he’s trying to be a normal family man. The three men, who haven’t been close in years, are brought back together when Markum’s eldest daughter Katie (Emily Rossum), at nineteen her dad’s favorite, is brutally murdered. Sean and his partner Whitey (Laurence Fishburne) become the lead investigators on the case, and suspicion eventually falls on Dave, who’d been at the same bar as Katie on the night of her death, and who came home to his nervous wife Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden) covered with blood and claiming to have had a run-in with a mugger. Also coming under scrutiny is Brendan Harris (Thomas Guiry), a neighborhood kid who was smitten with Katie (and, at it turns out, is the son of an old criminal crony of Jimmy); his mute brother Ray (Spencer Treat Clark); Jimmy’s supportive second wife Annabeth (Laura Linney); and a trio of Jimmy’s thuggish relatives, the Savage brothers (Kevin Chapman, Adam Nelson and Robert Wahlberg).
It wouldn’t be fair to reveal the intricate connections that develop among these characters, or the plot turns that put the focus of suspicion on one or another of them. Suffice it to say that what gives the narrative such remarkable heft are the underlying themes of children burdened with the sins of their parents, and of the evil men do, and the torment they suffer, simmering beneath the surface of life but always potentially ready to burst into sight. It’s a notion that Eastwood effectively–if a trifle bluntly–emphasizes by returning his camera’s gaze again and again to the lapping waters of the titular river, in which–as we learn–deep secrets are buried.
The themes by themselves aren’t sufficient, however; they have to be enlivened by superlative performers, and here they certainly are. Penn and Robbins are each, in their individual ways, amazingly fine here. Penn is, as might be expected, the more demonstrative of the two, but only occasionally does he fall into familiar poses, for the most pat investing Markum not just with power but with complexity, too. Robbins has the less showy role, but in many respects he’s even more impressive, making Boyle a truly tragic and pathetic figure while–importantly for the success of the film–keeping him a deeply ambiguous one as well. With both, Eastwood proves an extremely generous director, giving them ample time to flesh out their characters (each, for example, has a long, tearful monologue in which he can give free rein to his emotions). In other cases this might seem excessively permissive, but with these two actors one can’t complain. Bacon, as the sturdy detective, has a less emotional role, but he cuts an admirable figure, even though he must shoulder one of the script’s worst contrivances–repeated phone calls from his estranged wife, who can’t bring herself to speak to him. (Yes, it’s meant to hammer home the idea of the importance of communication as a means of avoiding disaster, but the device is an obvious, heavy-handed one.) Harden and Linney can be seen as counterparts to Penn and Robbins, except they’re mirror images: Boyle’s wife is the more emotive one, and Harden plays her to the hilt (and sometimes beyond it), while Markum’s is more silently strong, with her steeliness emerging only toward the close. Fishburne is good but one-dimensional as Devine’s partner, while Guiry and Rossum make the most of their smaller roles. Eastwood himself is listed as the composer of the score, which basically consists of a single, yearning theme that sounds out regularly in various piano and string combinations; but one notices the powerful use of silences as often as one does it.
“Mystic River” may be compared to Barry Levenson’s 1996 “Sleepers,” which also dealt with childhood friends brought together years later to deal with a man (curiously enough, played by Bacon) who had abused them while they were in juvenile detention. But though that film was good enough, this one is far better–more complicated, enigmatic and haunting. It’s easily Eastwood’s best film since “Unforgiven,” and one of the most compelling pictures of the year.