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ISSUE 117 VOL 6 PUBLISHED 10/31/2003

Critic's Corner: "Mystic River"

By Diana Frantz
Variety Editor

Friday, October 31, 2003

“Haunting“ is the perfect word to describe Clint Eastwood’s latest film, "Mystic River." No, not haunting in the otherworldly witches, ghosts and goblins sense that so easily comes to mind in late October. "Mystic River" is an earthquake that lays bare human beings in the face of tragedy, sending aftershocks of incredulity down the spine that haunt the moviegoer long after the credits stop rolling.

This disturbing testimony to the fragility of the human spirit develops against the background of a rather typical police drama. The film begins with a flashback. A kidnapper posing as a police officer accosts three Boston boys, Jimmy, Sean and Dave. Dave is abducted by the impostor cop and sexually abused until his eventual escape.

Flash forward. The three boys, now adults, bear the psychological wounds of a childhood tragedy. While Dave attempts to build a normal life despite the torturous memories of his abduction, Sean and Jimmy continue to struggle with residual guilt surrounding the circumstances of Dave’s kidnapping.

Their wounds are painfully reopened when the three men are reunited by yet another tragedy. Katie (Emmy Rossum), the 19-year-old daughter of Jimmy (Sean Penn), is brutally murdered, and Sean (Kevin Bacon), long estranged from Jimmy, is the police detective assigned to investigate the crime. Dave (Tim Robbins) and Jimmy are brothers-in-law so Dave initiates perfunctory attempts to comfort Jimmy in his time of need. Dave’s behavior is strange and grows rapidly stranger as the film progresses. Although his bizarre, doleful manner could be wholly attributed to the sexual abuse he sustained as a child, as mounting evidence implicates him in Katie’s murder, Dave’s eerie behavior evokes both pity and revulsion.

Tim Robbins’ subtle portrayal of the tortured Dave is simply phenomenal. Unassuming but blatantly socially inept, Robbins’ Dave plays in the band of life like a guitar with a broken string. Sean Penn’s performance is equally commendable. Tempered by the fire of prison time and a life of hard knocks, Jimmy’s tough exterior almost crumbles when he loses his beloved daughter: Penn makes palpable Jimmy’s inner tumult as he wavers between succumbing to grief and seeking vengeance.

The highlight of Bacon’s performance lies in his ability to make manifest Sean’s internal struggle to maintain professionalism as Katie’s murder case becomes increasingly personal. Bacon reveals Sean’s increasing unwillingness to acknowledge mounting evidence that suggests his childhood friend, Dave, is indeed a killer.

A distracting subplot involving Bacon and his estranged ex-wife is the film’s major weakness. The subplot is neither fully fleshed out nor does it contribute to an understanding of Sean’s psyche as he attempts to make sense of Dave’s kidnapping, Katie’s murder and his relationship to them.

One must regard this flaw as incredibly minor in light of the excellence of the film as a whole. "Mystic River," adapted from Dennis Lehane’s 2001 best-selling novel, was originally deemed unfit for the screen by the film business due to its reliance on the characters’ inner monologues. Through the combined efforts of screenwriter Brian Helgeland, director Clint Eastwood and a strong cast, "Mystic River" succeeds spectacularly in its effort to communicate the psychological reverberations of a childhood tragedy in three grown men. Reinforced by a foreboding soundtrack (composed by Renaissance man Clint Eastwood, who seems to have his capable fingers in every aspect of the film’s production), a somber thesis runs throughout "Mystic River," leaving moviegoers with the gloomy message that human beings are not resilient, but they are easily bent and even broken by tragedy.

"Mystic River" is clearly not a first-date movie or a chick flick, unless, of course, the said chicks desire an intellectually stimulating, emotionally draining murder mystery. In short, those who choose to experience "Mystic River" should be prepared to be run over by an emotional steamroller – and like it.

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