MPAA Rating: R/ Genre: Mystery/ Stars: Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon, Laurence Fishburne, Marcia Gay Harden, Laura Linney, Tom Guiry, Spencer Treat Clark, Andrew Mackin, Emmy Rossum, Jenny O’Hara, Kevin Chapman, Adam Nelson, Robert Wahlberg, Cayden Boyd, John Doman, Tori Davis, Jonathan Togo, Will Lyman, Ari Graynor, Ken Cheeseman, Michael McGovern, Kevin Conway, Eli Wallach, Jason Kelly, Cameron Bowen, Connor Paolo/Runtime: 138 minutes
I think it is fairly safe to start this review off by saying that as of late it really is not that often that we see a slice of cinema become iconic thanks to a phenomenal turn from a single lead performer, but for one to become iconic thanks to a trinity of lead performances that are all pitch perfect in every way possible….well you may have initially had my curiosity, but now this slice of cinema has also managed to acquire my attention. This therefore is what brought me to iconic actor and helmer Clint Eastwood’s critically beloved murder mystery Mystic River from 2003. Indeed here is a slice of cinema that, before even taking into account the exceptional work from the movie’s top-flight support cast, is blessed with a trinity of lead performances by Sean Penn, Kevin Bacon, and Tim Robbins that are all purely and simply phenomenal in every single sense of the word. An adaptation of a novel from iconic writer Dennis Lehane (who also gave us the source material for the fantastic 2007 crime thriller Gone Baby Gone), this slice of cinema is one that follows the connected lives of a trinity of boyhood chums who found themselves drifting away from one another in the wake of a truly heartbreaking incident only to find their lives tragically intersecting 20-plus years later when another tragedy rears its ugly head too close to home and manages to inadvertently expose not only the dark side and demons faced by each of the men, but in the people in their lives and the world around them as well. Based off that brief description, you should be able to gather that this particular cinematic voyage is not exactly a pleasure cruise nor is it one that is easygoing and relaxed by any stretch of the imagination. Rather, it is a raw, bleak, emotional, and gripping analysis of several distinct characters that is also an in depth examination of just how deep one’s sorrow can go, how the weeds of rage can be permitted to sprout, how painful seeking redemption for past mistakes can truly become, and just how sorely a loss can be felt when it occurs. Yet whereas most movies of a similar ilk as this one might try to bait your emotions in an artificial and clinical manner, Eastwood and his creative teams both behind and in front of the camera refuse to play their cinematic endeavor in such a way. Instead they choose to give us a slice of cinema that is unyielding, relentless, and as heartwrenching as it possibly can whilst also feeling that its audience doesn’t need to have its hand held with respect to significant aspects of this slice of cinema. As such, if you are looking for an action-packed thrill ride then I promise you that this slice of cinema is most assuredly not for you, but that’s ok because not every slice of cinema is for everyone. If however you are someone who likes darker fare, performance-driven films, gripping mysteries, or all of the above then this is one slice of cinema that is most assuredly one you should see even when taking into account the fact that no matter if this is your first or 50th time heading to this film’s titular river it will make an impact.
The plot is as follows: Mystic River opens its darkly gripping yarn as we witness a pair of young men having to sadly and horrifically watch as a guy acting as a cop nonchalantly and with no cares in the world whatsoever snatched their friend, another young man by the name of Dave Boyle, right off the streets of their Boston neighborhood. Yet although the police eventually found Dave, we see that the collective trauma and horror experienced by the trinity of boys that day has seen them drift apart in the years since. Thus Dave has now changed into someone who is both psychologically scarred and highly reluctant to deal with people, Sean decides to become a member of that distinct group known as law enforcement and do his best to try and ensure the deviants who would engage in these horrific acts get their chance to answer for their crimes whilst under the glaring light of justice, and Jimmy has remained in the neighborhood as a local hotheaded fixture who both owns a convenience store whilst also allegedly possessing ties to some of the more shady figures in the community who are all fairly loyal to him and see him as a boss of sorts. Yet despite having nothing to do with each other all this time, we see that fate has a tragic reunion in store for these men. A reunion that is sparked when Jimmy’s daughter is horrifically and tragically butchered, Sean finds himself being put on the case, and Dave tragically is revealed to be one of the last people to see Jimmy’s daughter just before she died. Thus as Jimmy and his loving wife attempt to make sense of and move on from this horrific set of circumstances, we see that Sean must do everything in his power to keep Jimmy from meddling with the investigation and seeking his own brand of justice whilst Dave starts slowly but surely raising the suspicions of both his wife and Sean’s partner as a possible suspect in the whole affair. Yet the questions still remain: could this tragic victim of a heinous crime really have it within him to murder a young girl? Can an emotionally trigger happy ex-con keep his emotions in check and stop himself from dispatching his own brand of justice and let the police do their job without getting in the way? Can a cop who is dealing with his own issues find a way to rebuild relationships that have been left in complete and utter disarray? Yet perhaps most importantly: who DID kill the girl? Suffice it to say these are answers that I feel you are best left to discover for yourself dear reader even IF the answers might not make you the happiest in the world…..
Now when looking at this slice of cinema from behind the camera, it should be noted that the work done by Clint Eastwood is nothing short of astounding. Yes the ideas of violence and vengeance have been key concepts that a lot of Eastwood’s work has explored to some degree or another, but in this slice of cinema, we are able to see Clint take on this topic from a novel and fairly cryptic perspective with no degree of machismo to be found. Indeed in this film, whenever violence occurs, it always has messy fallout that never ever leaves, the mental viscerality nearly results in as much blood flowing as a fist or weapon, and a lot of the injuries accrued are of the self-inflicted variety. Suffice it to say that, through the powerful work of scribe Brian Helgeland in adapting Dennis Lehane’s work, Clint has given audiences one of his more potent, raw, and just agonizing movies to date. More than that however, it is also one of his more human narratives due in large part to how three dimensional and complex this slice of cinema’s cast of characters are. Indeed it’s not the usual curves in the narrative road that intrigue Clint nowadays; rather it’s the curves in the road of the human hear, psyche, and soul that pique his curiosity and this is one slice of cinema that, more than most of Clint’s other films of the past 2 decades, does a wonderful job of exploring that concept. It is this concept that we also see explored by the work done in regards to this slice of cinema’s musical accompaniment. Indeed equal parts haunting, riveting, and downright melancholic, this is one score that is very much reflective of the slice of cinema that it is a technical component of in the best way possible.
Yet even when taking into account just how powerful the work behind the camera is, I think it should be said that the true heart and soul that is to be found in this slice of cinema can be located in the truly raw and gripping performances in front of the camera. This starts with the trinity of men who are, for all intents and purposes, this slice of cinema’s de-facto main characters and all three are magnificent. Indeed the role of Jimmy, Sean Penn for all intents and purposes takes himself apart in front of the camera as he takes us through every pain-stricken and heart-breaking level of his being in a performance that is one of the most raw, open, and full of integrity I have witnessed. Indeed the further Jimmy sinks into his grief, the more he is able to do things that really start to blur the line between seeing him as a victim and seeing him as a deadly vigilante with an axe to grind. Even with that in mind, there is no denying that you will find it hard to remember you are viewing a powerful performance instead of a real-life individual and the choices they make whilst grieving for the death of their child whom they loved with all their heart and soul. On the other side of this coin however is the work done by Tim Robbins as the adult Dave Boyle. Indeed if Penn is letting his negative emotions pour out with no filter whatsoever, Robbins does an equally masterful job of keeping his buried inside. More than that, Robbins does a great job of continuously making Boyle an enigma when it comes to whether he is innocent or not in regards to the death of Jimmy’s daughter. I mean make no mistake: there is something off about Boyle’s story from the night Jimmy’s daughter was killed, but it’s not entirely clear if he did anything or not due to him not really wanting to interact with other people all that much. Thus Robbins does a terrific job at keeping audiences at arm’s length much in the same way his character keeps everyone in the world of this movie at bay as well. Now I can see how, in the role of Sean, it might be simple to look past the work done in this by Kevin Bacon. Indeed this is because Sean is nowhere near as complicated as the other two men at the heart of this narrative to the point that there are moments where all that’s being asked of Bacon is to simply respond and/or react to the various confessions and temper tantrums Penn and Robbins hurl his way. Yet even with that in mind, I urge you not to write this off as just a typical run of the mill character. Indeed this is because Bacon takes this, in other slices of cinema, one-dimensional part and gives him genuine degrees of emotion and characterization where a lesser actor would have just stood there and shrugged. Suffice it to say that Bacon does a terrific job at giving us a performance that resonates just as much, if not slightly more so from time to time, as the two other acting titans at the core of this film. Yet lest you think that this skill and caliber is limited to the trinity of de-facto lead performances, we are able to see that even amongst the co-starring performances we see that Clint was able to strike acting gold both in the cast he was able to get and in the performances that they give. Yet even with that in mind there are a pair of standouts however who deserve mentioning. The first of these is Laura Linney who, manages to give an engaging performance in her role as Jimmy’s wife Annabeth. Indeed straight to the point and immensely devoted to both Jimmy and his pursuit of getting revenge on whoever killed their daughter, Linney does an absolutely fantastic, but also kind of terrifying at times job with the material she is given. The second is the always wonderful Laurence Fishburne in the role of Sean’s partner Detective Sergeant Powers and, in that phenomenal way that Fishburne is known for bringing to every role he plays, brings the movie goer not only an integral counterpoint to the main characters, but also a wise and authoritative voice of reason to the main characters and the bleakness of everything going on around them.
All in all it should be said that by blending together a riveting narrative and emotionally gripping work on both sides of the camera, Clint Eastwood has managed to create more than just a genuinely great slice of cinema. Rather, he has also created an emotional and quite haunting film that is one of the best of the 2000s and one that no matter if it’s your first time or your 51st time watching it will stay with you long after the credits have begun to roll. Indeed in an era where most films seem deadset on just entertaining you and nothing more or less, this is one slice of cinema that thankfully bucks that trend to the curb and instead, much like the river in its title, immerses you in a gripping world that is a lot like our own, but is made up of equal parts tragedy, heartache, regret, and pain. Make of that what you will dear reader. On a scale of 1-5 I give Mystic River “03” a solid 4 out of 5.