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Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River, which opens the New York Film Festival Friday night and goes into theatrical release next Wednesday, is an urban crime thriller of considerable gravitas. Working from Brian Helgeland’s smooth adaptation of the hefty Dennis Lehane bestseller, Eastwood’s 24th directorial feature is his most ambitious in a decade.
Pursuing the interlocking destinies of three boyhood friends—Jimmy the ex-con gangster (Sean Penn), Sean the cop (Kevin Bacon), and Dave the bum (Tim Robbins)—through the tribalized precincts of white working-class Boston, Mystic River showcases Eastwood as behind-the-camera auteur rather than on-screen icon. Somber music, composed by the director himself, underscores the movie’s requisite dark and stormy nights. As befits a procedural, Mystic River has a deliberate, methodical pace; exposition is frequent, milieu is duly noted, and the past is always present.
History is the subject, horror is repeated: A prologue shows the 10-year-old Dave abducted one Saturday afternoon by fake cops (and subsequently abused) as little Jimmy and Sean look on in fearful amazement. Thirty-odd years later, Jimmy’s teenage daughter turns up dead, and Dave, one of the last people to see her alive, comes home fucked-up, bloody, and babbling to his wife, Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden). As homicide detective Sean returns to the old neighborhood to take the case, and crazed Jimmy puts his scariest boyos on it, the movie features rival investigations, with cops versus thugs; as distraught Celeste is a cousin to Jimmy’s ice-queen consort Annabeth (Laura Linney), the narrative further pits wives against their husbands.
Although a typically cost-conscious Eastwood production, Mystic River is a movie of big perfs. Scary and volatile, Penn, who shoulders the burden of “acting” (or is it reacting?), isn’t this time entirely eclipsed by his hair. His trademark intensity, however, plays oddly against the rest of the cast’s cautious withholding. There’s no particular buildup to Jimmy’s fury. It’s inevitable he’ll take the law into his own hands—like in many of Eastwood’s movies. Mystic River critiques the American Zen of lone-wolf, vigilante justice.
Robbins, by contrast, is a more quietly terrifying creature, even when he’s not sitting in the dark watching a vampire flick on TV. Pallid, sour, and haunted, he gives a powerfully physical performance—jaw poked out and face somehow folded back on itself, mumbling his lines through a thick Boston accent. Bacon has the closest to an Eastwood role, albeit one largely devoid of interest, with Laurence Fishburne as his even more nominal partner.
Parallelisms may be Eastwood’s favorite structuring device. The tormented Celeste is doubled by the stoical Annabeth, as Sean’s guilty loyalty to Dave is reflected by Jimmy’s guilt-free rage. (Even Sean’s silent wife is mirrored by a mute witness to the crime.) But these emotional allegiances begin to cancel themselves out as the noose tightens around the suspect’s neck. As in Unforgiven, Eastwood contrives to foreground the question of violence and make it specific as well as inevitable. Darker in its way than even Unforgiven, Mystic River actually ends with a festive patriotic parade casting a horrifying shadow of criminality on the entire procedure.
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