May 18, 2004
Starring: Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon, Laurence Fishburne, Marcia Gay Harden, Laura Linney, Kevin Chapman, Thomas Guiry, Emmy Rossum, Spencer Treat Clark, Andrew Mackin, ,
Clint Eastwood is a highly regarded actor but under-appreciated as a director. Sure, he received an Academy Award for directing Unforgiven (1992) and deservedly so, but he is conspicuously absent when critics talk about great contemporary directors like David Lynch, Terrence Malick or Martin Scorsese. It may be that Eastwood’s direction is not as flashy or that he makes popular, mainstream movies. However, as a director, he has created an impressive and diverse body of work, from the prison escape/road movie, A Perfect World (1993), to his latest effort, Mystic River (2003). On the surface, it is a murder mystery but it also deals with the issue of child abuse and explores the themes of violence and revenge in Eastwood’s typically understated way.
When they were kids, Jimmy, Sean and Dave grew up in a working class Irish Catholic neighbourhood in Boston. One day, while they were playing in the street, Dave was taken away by two men posing as policemen. They kidnapped him and physically and emotionally abused him over several days. Dave managed to escape but the incident changed the lives of all three boys. They are now adults and no longer close friends. Jimmy (Penn) is a reformed criminal who now runs an honest business. Sean (Bacon) is a police detective who is currently separated from his wife. Dave is a soft-spoken, quiet man with emotional scars that run deep.
After Jimmy’s 19-year old daughter (Rossum) is brutally murdered, Dave becomes a suspect. He was one of the last people to see her alive that night, his alibi is shaky at best and he’s evasive about what he was up to around the time she was murdered. Jimmy is devastated and slips effortlessly back into his hardened criminal mode; determined to find out who did it and exact swift retribution. Sean and his partner, Whitey (Fishburne), investigate the murder and this not only reunites the three childhood friends after all these years but also re-opens old wounds.
Tim Robbins conveys a real haunted quality with his portrayal of Dave. It is obvious that something is not right with him and the actor expresses the anguish that his character has been carrying around all these years. Robbins does an excellent job of communicating the inner turmoil that exists in Dave and how it manifests itself on the surface. There is a quiet, yet unsettling intensity that Robbins brings to the role. In his mind, Dave is still that little boy running through the woods, trying to escape from his captors.
Sean Penn has the flashiest, meatiest role in the movie as the distraught father. It’s a very physical performance reminiscent of early Marlon Brando. The scene where he finds out that his daughter has been killed is an explosion of emotion as Penn screams and rages like a wounded animal. Penn digs deep within himself and exposes a raw nerve that makes it such an intense scene to watch. Afterwards, Penn spends the rest of the movie pacing much like a caged animal that is waiting to be unleashed as he plots his revenge—it is the very essence of machismo much like Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) or On the Waterfront (1954).
Kevin Bacon has perhaps the toughest role in that his is the least flashy but also one of the most important. He tells Jimmy that his daughter is dead and also suspects that Dave might be the killer—two things that have significant ramifications later on in the movie. Bacon does a good job in also showing us a glimpse of Sean’s personal life. His wife has left for some unknown reason and she calls him occasionally but says nothing, which frustrates him to no end.
Eastwood’s direction is understated and straightforward with minimal, invisible editing. This allows the actors to do their thing and gives the script room to breathe. There is not a pronounced colour palette in the movie; instead Eastwood explores the relationship between shadows and light. The direction is tasteful and unobtrusive as it should be for a solemn, character-driven piece like this one. It’s old school, Hollywood filmmaking that you don’t see much of anymore.
The first disc features an audio commentary with actors Tim Robbins and Kevin Bacon. They kick things off by talking about the authenticity of shooting on location and as an actor it’s important to immerse oneself in the people and the environment that you’re trying to portray on screen. It’s a casual, low-key track with a disappointing number of lulls between comments. The best way to listen to it is fast-forwarding to a specific scene or jumping from track to track.
The second DVD begins with a 22-minute Making Of featurette entitled, “Mystic River: Beneath the Surface.” Originally, author Dennis Lehane did not want his book adapted into a film but when he got a call from Eastwood, and after hearing what the movie star wanted to do with the book, he changed his mind. All the major cast members are interviewed as well as Eastwood and screenwriter Brian Helgeland. They all speak very eloquently about the movie. This was clearly a project that energized and excited the cast and they were all honoured to work with a legend like Eastwood.
“Mystic River: From Page to Screen” is a shorter featurette that repeats a lot of material from the previous extra and examines the film’s story.
“The Charlie Rose Show Interviews” features in-depth conversations with Eastwood, Robbins and Bacon. This is probably the most substantial extra as Rose asks his usual detailed, well-informed questions. Eastwood talks about how the project originated and what drew him to Lehane’s book. Robbins discusses the challenge of playing such a complex character; one that forced him to explore dark places he hadn’t gone before. Bacon talks about how he got the role and about his career in general. He felt uncomfortable as a lead actor and has since decided to become a character actor, taking on smaller roles if it means working with great directors like Eastwood.
Also included are the teaser and theatrical trailer for the movie.
In a nice touch, the final disc is a CD for the movie’s wonderfully understated and atmospheric soundtrack by Clint Eastwood.
Mystic River is a thoughtful meditation on violence and its de-humanizing effects. It is about how a single, pivotal event in one person’s life can affect not just them but their friends and family for the rest of their lives. It all goes back to that fateful day when Dave got into that car. What would have happened if Jimmy or Sean had gone instead? How would their lives be different? The film doesn’t offer any easy answers; instead leaving it up to the audience to figure it out themselves.