Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Oct 15, 2003 1:06 pm 
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Chris Knipp movie reviews: INDEX

Detective story epic

Mystic River seeks to raise the police procedural/murder mystery genre to the level of dark tragic epic much as do the Godfather series and James Gray’s The Yards. The story aims successfully to convey the essential feel of life in working class Boston – especially the lifelong interconnectedness of its inhabitants. The doomed common past of three men is embodied in the event of the film’s prologue: three eleven-year-old boys are playing hockey in the street in front of their houses. Jimmy and Sean watch helpllessly while Dave is lured away in a car by two evil men posing as cops. We understand with horror that he is sexually abused and tortured for four days before he manages to run away. “Sometimes it seems as if we all three got in that car,” the adult Jimmy says. Dave repeatedly describes himself as someone "escaped from wolves." His terrible childhood experience highlights the brutal, inhuman side of mankind. The horror of it hovers over the events that follow.

Twenty-five years later Jimmy’s 19-year old daughter is found murdered in a deep hole in a wood much like the cellar where Dave was held by the molesters. The murder reactivates the painful ties between these three individuals, their families, and their emotional histories.

The movie unfolds in the slow, solemn, methodical, sometimes flat Clint Eastwood directorial style, which for the most part works compellingly here because of the story’s inherently tragic overtones and the powerful understatement of the acting. A forgivable exception to the latter is Sean Penn's explosive performance in the lead role as Jimmy Markum, the murdered girl’s dad, a reformed criminal who owns a convenience store. He is a violent man who races to find the murderer before the homicide detectives, one of whom is the other boy who watched Dave taken away, Sean Devine (Kevin Bacon).

The Jimmy/Sean dualism is obvious. The wild card is Dave Boyle (hauntingly played by Tim Robbins), a recessive, suffering handyman whose wife suspects him because he has come home very late on the night of the murder saying he’s killed a mugger. Not only is the painful intimacy between the three men reactivated by the murder, but Dave’s wife and Jimmy’s wife are cousins. It’s as if the people are all cousins. They cannot escape from each other. This is a closed world of haunted memories and moldering disappointments. Katie, the dead girl, had a boyfriend, Brendan Harris (Tom Guiry) who was about to run away with her. Brendan has a mean, foulmouthed mother and a mute younger brother and the boys and the brother’s best pal were often seen at Jimmy’s convenience store, just as Dave was at the bar where Katie was seen the night she died. A nightmare has begun and we watch with fascination as it unfolds.

As the detective Sean, with his partner Whitey (Laurence Fishburne), explore the case, the many characters are serially highlighted. A punishing and manipulative final sequence cuts back and forth between a vigilante killing and the detectives’ tracking down of the real killer.

There are some oddities. At forty-three (Penn) and forty-five (Bacon and Robbins), the lead actors are clearly too old for the thirty-five-year old characters they’re playing. (That they’re meant to be that young means Jimmy was 16 when his daughter Katie was born.) Halfway through Whitey and Sean are revealed to be working for the FBI; why wasn’t this clear earlier? Bacon’s relatively uninteresting performance can’t entirely be faulted, since his role is purely functional, but it’s still a disappointment. The shots of his missing wife showing only part of her face at a pay phone seem pointless teases. Marcia Gay Harden’s skittishness is mannered and irritating. Laura Linney's performance lacks the crude energy that would justify her final Lady Macbeth moment. And there are some times when the relentless rhythm of the movie begins to falter and seems plodding.

Dave is sucked down by a crime of which he was the victim, and it seems he too must be punished after he seeks indirect revenge for the perverted act that maimed him for life. Yet his own incestuous murder goes unpunished. The fatalism of the story must have appealed to Eastwood’s sensibility, but also its rootedness in the mundane world of working class Boston. The interconnectedness and slow inevitability of Mystic River's sad story may link it with the ancient Greeks, but it's only the everyday naturalism the film achieves that validates the film as tragedy, that gives the violent events true weight and humanity. The film's solemnity works because of the way Robbins and Bacon (Penn less so) immaculately mimic Boston accents and the cameramen capture the familiar look of Boston Streets and interiors. Without that anchoring in the ordinary, the high air of epic horror would seem garish and cheap. There are some flaws in the film, but they do not detract from its overall power.

Clint Eastwood ages well. At seventy-three he has directed perhaps his most complex film. And he has even composed the sad, brooding, but never heavy-handed score, which -- with a poetic justice rare in Hollywood -- is performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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