Sober and imposing, Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River spreads over the screen with a sense of purpose. It knows it’s an important movie, and means to let you know it too. The first take, accompanied by Eastwood’s own score (which becomes increasingly ponderous as it is overused), is long and deliberate. It travels along the surface of a dark, wide river to the working class streets of Boston, where guys sit on porches outside their apartments and talk baseball. It’s the sort of neighborhood where everyone knows everyone’s business, but it’s the sort of community where stoic silence marks manhood.
Three 11-year-olds are writing their names in wet sidewalk cement when a car pulls up: the driver flashes a badge and commands one of the kids to get in. fearful and distrusting, Dave—the kid whose name remains ominously unfinished—obliges. The car pulls off, slowly, forebodingly, the camera watching Dave’s frightened face in the back window, then cutting abruptly, to take the boy’s point of view, pulling away from the two left behind. This is a terrible thing, of course: the child is locked away in a basement and molested for four days. The cops scour the area, to no avail, and then, miraculously, Dave escapes—the camera rushing with him through the trees, tipping up to show the blue sky, wisps of white clouds swirling. Fade to black.
Years later, the film resumes, and poor, traumatized Dave is now a dad (played by Tim Robbins). Walking home from a ballgame with his own young son, he happens on the sidewalk where his name remains undone. In case this emblem doesn’t underline the point for you, it’s also clear that Dave is a little uncertain in his gait, shuffly and mumbly with his child, outward signs that the effects of his ordeal remain with Dave, that he is, as yet, also undone.
Adapted from Dennis Lehane’s novel by Brian Helgeland, Eastwood’s film uses Dave’s story—and its enduring resonances for his two boyhood friends—as a means to break down the losses of innocence and layers of reckoning that make up a mythic history. To its credit, and not unlike Eastwood’s oddest and riskiest film to date, A Perfect World, Mystic River doesn’t allow vengeance or catharsis for this outrage. Instead, it piles on the outrages, emphasizes the broader cultural chaos they reflect, and grants its able performers big fat scenes where their characters’ grief and damage are telegraphed in meaningful shadows and dialogue: “Vampires,” pronounces Dave one night. “They are undead. But maybe there’s something beautiful about it, like someday they wake up and forget what it’s like to be human.”
This ramble understandably alarms his already edgy wife, Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden), who appears to have precious little understanding of the basic facts of his abduction (and this couple has a child together—have they never discussed this crucial subject before?). It also confirms her niggling suspicion that Dave has something to do with the recent murder of 19-year-old Katie (Emmy Rossum), as he came home that same night with blood on his hands and a knife wound, which he attributed at the time to a mugger fought off in a parking lot.
The terrible notion that her husband’s own “vampires” have at last emerged after so many years leads Celeste to spend a lot of time over at the dead girl’s house, helping the family with the wake and ensuing daily details. That this family happens to be that of Jimmy (Sean Penn), one of those two boys who watched Dave disappear that fateful day so long ago, is of course no coincidence. Worse, the movie’s elaborate orchestration of woe has the third boy, Sean (Kevin Bacon) on the case as lead detective. They’ve had little contact with one another over the years, but now they’re slammed together, forced to contend—at long last—with their separate loads of guilt, pain, and ongoing horror.
Each has suffered or delivered his own hurt before this moment. Jimmy’s a local gangster and ex-con, and still hangs around with a couple of leather-jacketed, 40something hooligans, ridiculously named the Savage brothers (Adam Nelson and Robert Wahlberg). His first wife (and Katie’s mother) died long ago, leaving him to raise the girl alone, until he met his current wife, Annabeth (Laura Linney, who has a criminally silly part here). Angry and lost, he begins to believe that the killer is the boy she was dating behind his back, a relationship uncovered by the cops, the very cops Jimmy doesn’t believe can do the job he must do.
Terrible and urgent, Jimmy’s agony over Katie’s loss gives Mystic River what emotional weight it has. More precisely, Penn’s raw performance drags some of the movie’s more egregiously maudlin scenes into more convincing anguish: when his father-in-law, unloading wake beer in the pantry, suggests the loss of his wife resembles Jimmy’s, the younger man listens, then answers with a fine fierceness that builds to devastation: “Janey died in her sleep, my daughter was murdered,” he says, his voice rising the way Penn’s can, so unnervingly. “Don’t talk to me about ‘domestic responsibilities.’”
While the film doesn’t elucidate Jimmy’s own violent past, it is clear that he hasn’t had misgivings until now: “I know in my soul,” he prays to the air that is Katie, “I contributed to your death, but I don’t know how.” By contrast, Sean’s life seems wholly shaped by regret (Bacon also accounts himself splendidly, in a part that turns weirder by the minute). This regret is, unfortunately, figured by repeated close-ups of perfectly lipsticked lips; these belong to Sean’s ex, who calls him every day but never speaks, as he pleads with her to tell him about “the baby.” Ouch. (The only woman phone caller more ookily sinister to a vulnerable male psyche might be Jessica Walters in Play Misty for Me.)
Sean spends most of his time with men, in particular, his witty partner, Whitey Powers (Laurence Fishburne)—whose name may be some inscrutable comment on Boston’s notorious race relations, but whose presence gives Sean (and the rest of us) a link to planet earth. (That the ex comes into play toward the end of the film, to serve as a distracting “closure,” only exacerbates how badly she’s used throughout Sean’s efforts to solve the case.) Whitey, for his part, pushes Sean to question his past, to rethink assumptions about his “friends” and moral order. That Whitey has no life of his own outside the relationship with his partner is too bad, because even in his brief moments on screen, he provides welcome balance for the verging hysterics.
There’s no verging, though, for Annabeth, who hardly has a word to say through the investigation, tending to her own children with Jimmy, and maintaining what seems an even keel in the face of her sister Celeste’s growing anxiety. But by film’s end, she has leaped wholly overboard, articulating a bizarre shift in moral dynamic that undermines most everything that’s come before: As Jimmy frets over the horrors done to him and those he’s brought to bear against others, she calms him with a witchy woman seduction that would be chilling if it weren’t so wacky. “We’re strong, everyone else is weak,” she whispers, embodying a reflection that doesn’t resemble what you know of him. “You can rule this town… Nothing you do can ever be wrong.”
Up until this point, much of Mystic River has probed the torment of keeping secrets, the need for forgiveness, the ache of guilt. The mysterious cycle of payback appears to work its way in at the last minute, but that’s a diversion, as is the focus on the men’s shared understanding of what it means to be men. The film’s real interest, one that takes it far beyond its complicated shots of the brutally killed, pale white body of the girl, turns out to be terrible betrayals and misunderstandings, by women.