Mystic River

This movie was screened at part of the 2003 New York Film Festival.

In the Boston suburb of East Buckingham in the 1970s, three young friends, Jimmy, Dave and Sean, are doing what boys do with their summer vacations, playing street hockey and getting into harmless mischief like writing their names in freshly laid cement. This time, however, the boys are caught by a plainclothes policeman driving through the neighborhood. As Jimmy and Sean live on the street, the officer has Dave get into the back of his car, to take him home and explain to his mother what he was doing. Except the cop (with his priest passenger) doesn’t take Dave home. Four days after his abduction, Dave escapes from his captors and returns home, the victim of unseen and untold atrocities.

Twenty-five years later, the three have grown apart, but still see each other around the neighborhood. Jimmy (Sean Penn) is now running a corner store, Sean (Kevin Bacon) is a detective and Dave (Tim Robbins)… well, Dave walks his son to and from school a lot, and goes out drinking with one of his other friends. But when Sean is assigned a murder case of a young lady found in an abandoned zoo which turns out to be Jimmy’s 19 year old daughter Katie (Emmy Rossum), the three old chums are reunited as the truth behind her death is resolved. The night of Katie’s murder, Dave comes home very late from a night at a pub, a large slash wound on his sternum and scratches on his knuckles. Once Katie’s death is discovered, Dave’s wife Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden), to whom Dave has never disclosed any account of his childhood trauma, immediately suspects her husband, even though he claims he was cut trying to stop a man from molesting a young boy.

Jimmy, who still has dealings with shady characters despite his best attempts to stay clean, sends two of his goons, the Savage brothers, to do some of their own “investigating,” often hampering the official inquiry of Sean and his partner Whitey (Laurence Fishburne). Jimmy suspects Brendan Harris, a local boy whose father Jimmy once partnered with during his crime-filled teen years, has something to do with his daughter’s death, unaware that Katie was dating Brendan in secret. As Sean and Whitey unravel more clues into the killing, they suspect Brendan more and more, while Jimmy becomes more convinced his old friend Dave had something to do with it. Both storylines come crashing together in a culmination of lust, passion, betrayal and deceit.

,br>And therein lies the problem. The crescendo of the film is dramatic and heartbreaking, with one character making the ultimate sacrifice, but he does so for all the wrong reasons. When the truth is uncovered, we feel for the loss of this innocent character, but are also cheated by the reveal of who is behind the murder.

Clint Eastwood has grown into an exceptional filmmaker, which makes this cheat all the more painful. For someone as knowledgeable about cinema as he is, Eastwood should know better than to pull the kind of bait and switch he allows this ending to be. It is unfair to his actors and it is unfair to his audiences.

With each new film, Sean Penn is more and more becoming the Robert DeNiro of his generation, not just in acting technique but also physically. His Jimmy is the most interesting character in the story, and Penn infuses Jimmy with equal parts calm and fury. Tim Robbins does the best he can with an under created character, who should be the dramatic focal point of the story but sadly has very little to do. Kevin Bacon is merely reprising his Ray Duquette cop character from “Wild Things,” minus the nudity. The women of “Mystic River,” Laura Linney and Marcia Gay Harden, are almost inconsequential. For the first two hours, they get little face time as the long-suffering wives of Sean Penn and Tim Robbins, respectively. The only time either of them get any chance to emote is on a strange and unneeded coda, where Linney takes a few moments to channel Lady MacBeth, while Harden wanders around aimlessly for an extended scene, wondering why no one will pay attention to her. We save the Sylvia Miles “Biggest Ham in the Smallest Role” Award for Eli Wallach, who devours everything in sight in his solitary scene.

When all is said and done, “Mystic River” is a compelling film that could have been a classic with some judicious editing in the end and a rethink of the climax. While I am still very disappointed with the last twenty minutes, I cannot completely dismiss the film for its final lapses.

Rating: B-