2000s, 4/4, Clint Eastwood, Drama, Review

Mystic River

#4 in my ranking of Clint Eastwood’s films.

Give Clint Eastwood a great script for a drama, and he’s going to make a great movie. He may not always be able to modify his filmmaking style appropriately to different genres, but he is very good at the slow burn drama. Written by Brian Helgeland (a screenwriter of, shall we say, inconsistent results) based on the novel by Dennis LeHane, Mystic River ends up feeling like yet another reaction to Dirty Harry from Eastwood. Here’s a tale of vigilante justice born of a very realistic portrait of pain, trauma, and lingering memories that can never be pushed away.

Jimmy Markum (Sean Penn) is a former thief gone straight after the death of his wife while he was in prison, leaving him alone with his daughter Katie (Emmy Rossum) once he got out. He remarried to Annabeth (Laura Linney) and had two more daughters, but Katie is obviously his favorite, the one he has the closest connection to. He’s also one of three friends from the Southie neighborhood of Boston who either witnessed or experienced a terrible crime in their youth. Jimmy and his friend Sean (Kevin Bacon) watched as Dave (Tim Robbins) was all but forced into a car by two men calling themselves police before he disappeared for four days when he was abused in a basement until his escape.

One day, twenty-five years later, when all three friends have split off to live their own adult lives, Katie ends up dead in a park, an event that brings together the friends in different ways for the first time in years and recalls a host of past sins. Sean, now a police detective with the Staties with a wife who has left him and calls him without saying anything, seemingly waiting for something, gets the job as lead investigator with his partner Whitey (Laurence Fishburne). Dave is immediately at the center of audience suspicion for coming home that some night covered in blood, a situation that his wife Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden) helps him cover up without getting a straight answer about what happened to him.

Now, this movie works really well as it is, but there’s one pet peeve of mine that it slightly picks at: lying to the audience. We could know Dave’s either innocence or guilt in the crime of the murder of Katie Markum that night. We’re following Dave around that night and see him see her in a bar that night with her two friends, making a scene of themselves. And yet, people love their mysteries. My thing is that first of all, following Dave and then cutting off his side of things right before a key event is a cheat. Secondly, I think the point of the film is the tragedy, not the mystery. I don’t think you’d lose much of anything narratively by revealing the truth early instead of keeping it hidden.

The point of the film really is this exploration of the past in the present, of Dave taking his ten year old son past the point he was kidnapped on a walk home from a little league baseball game, of Dave expressing a desire for crime to come back to bring property values back down, of being so consumed by a terrible event that one cannot be honest about oneself to other people any more. I hadn’t seen this film in at least fifteen years, so I couldn’t remember the real identity of the killer as the investigation began into Katie’s murder. I honestly didn’t care, though. I didn’t want to figure out the killer’s identity in a mystery (I remembered about halfway through all of a sudden), but I loved the exploration of character.

It’s easy to fall backwards and call this an actor’s showcase. It is filled with great performances, but they are really helped by the incredible writing. There are so many echoes throughout the film as events inform each other, especially around Katie’s unknown boyfriend Brendan (Tom Guiry) and his own father’s past with Jimmy. Why did Katie and Brendan have to sneak around and plan an elopement to Las Vegas to be together? Because Jimmy went to jail when Brendan’s father turned him in on a robbery. He holds a grudge against the whole family, afraid of Brendan becoming unreliable and backstabbing like his own father, something Jimmy doesn’t want his daughter attached to. It becomes ironic when Brendan effectively becomes a proto-Jimmy at a certain point late in the film.

The center of all of this is, of course, Dave, and Tim Robbins is really amazing as the broken man carrying such awful baggage through his whole life no matter what he does. It creates a barrier between him and everyone else, including his own wife, and he has trouble interacting in such a highwire situation where he looks guilty but insists that he’s not. Why not just tell the truth? Because he can’t. He can’t admit what happened because it’s too close to his own awful experience, where the wolves attacked the boy as he tells his son in a bedtime story. I don’t think Dave’s tragedy is helped by a false lead regarding his guilt or innocence in the investigation. In fact, I think knowing the truth of what happened actually highlights the tragedy of his path. He gets trapped, and he doesn’t know a way out.

Now, so much of Eastwood’s directing work feels a reaction to Dirty Harry, and this is no exception. Jimmy takes justice into his own hands, and he does it wrong. He is only concerned with the justice of finding his daughter’s killer, and he’s too ready to act without real evidence. Harry Callahan was never unsure of his target no matter the niceties of police procedure either, but he had the advantage of never being wrong (I really wanted to see him be wrong once, which would have made an interesting story to put him in). Here, that wrongness happens, and the implications of that incorrect action ends up dominating the final moments of the film. It’s an interesting contrast as Annabeth justifies it to him like Lady Macbeth while those wounded by his decision have no idea what has happened, only that they’ve been hurt. It’s a rationalization of doing wrong that the look of the wounded parties obviously undercuts. I read some random comment from some random nobody about how this film justifies vigilante justice, even when it gets it wrong, which is what Annabeth says, but the rest of the film operates against that idea completely. It’s about how you read movies. Watching someone get away with a crime doesn’t mean that the film is okay with it. You have to see what else is going on to see if that’s actually the case, and a woman earnestly looking around for her innocent husband who is now missing doesn’t tell me that the movie thinks that Jimmy was a good man.

This is really a triumph of Eastwood’s career. It takes a great script, pulls out great performances from his actors, and he keeps the action on a slow burn that really plays well into the film’s narrative drive. This is his best film since Unforgiven (though he’d certainly made very good stuff), but it’s also a marked contrast to the rather limp Blood Work. This feels like the start of Eastwood’s late stages in his career, and he handles it exceptionally well.

Rating: 4/4

5 thoughts on “Mystic River”

  1. Yep. Super solid movie, even if it has actors I don’t care much for. Sometimes, I can ignore that. Sometimes.

    As is usually the case for me, it all comes down to the writing. Dennis LeHane is a damn fine writer but….but…I love his books right up until ‘the twist’. I love his setups, his characters, his complications, his sense of drama, but the twist… They usually sit wrong with me. The twist in Shutter Island bothers me, because I liked the ‘fake’ story better than the real one. Though in both Shutter Island and in Mystic River, what IS there is good. It has something to say, something to think about. But I get set up along one line and then I get jerked around to another line and as a writer and reader and consumer of filmed entertainment…I don’t like it. I buy my ticket to the ride on the assumption I’m being told ‘the truth’ about the story I’m investing in. I don’t like switcharoos, no matter how well they’re done. Expectations matter, at least to my enjoyment.

    Anyway, back on topic, I appreciate everything here right up until the twist with Dave.

    And as someone who’s studied and ruminated on vigilante justice for more than a few decades…this movie mostly plays it…interestingly. Not fair. The story has a slant on that issue but there are subtitles. Including the King doing what he has to do, even when it’s hard. Even when he makes mistakes.. There’s a little Mario Puzzo there. Jimmy is right about Brendan (or at least his family) being no good for Katie, if we really want to lay on the irony. Or how ‘cops’ abused Dave, leading to a lack of trust towards the law. Like I said, there’s a lot here to dig into.

    I count this as the ‘Twilight’ Clint phase in my head. Clint isn’t starring in this one, he’s letting other take the stage and he’s providing excellent support for his actors. Maybe, like Ridley Scott, he can’t elevate a story but if you give him a good script, yeah, he can let that script soar.

    As for Brian Hegland…I’ll say he didn’t screw up the story (yes, I down own the book) and that’s a minor screenwriting miracle; and that Mel Gibson saved Payback…and treated Brian better than he deserved, having seen both versions of Payback.

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    1. I touch on your concern with the twist about how I think the film would actually work better without it. I mean, everything plays out the same except we know from the beginning that Dave is not Katie’s killer. It robs the mystery of whether Dave is the killer or not, but it helps highlight the actual tragedy around Dave’s fate from the beginning. But, people love their mysteries, and Eastwood (and Lehane and Helgeland) gave the people what they wanted. It works that way on subsequent viewings, though, which gives it a wonderful replay value, especially for a film supposedly built around “who’s the killer?”.

      This is one of those films that I resisted at the time because it was up against The Lord of the Rings at the Oscars (gosh…I cared about the Oscars once), so it’s nice to see it outside of that stupidity and just watch the craft and writing come together so well, able to appreciate it without needing to create some competition that’s just stupid at its core.

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