Clint Eastwood pours everything he knows about directing into Mystic River. His film sneaks up, messes with your head and then floors you. You can’t shake it. It’s that haunting, that hypnotic. Eastwood doesn’t show his face in Mystic River, but the hard squint we know from Dirty Harry to Unforgiven, permeates every frame. The plot sounds like an ordinary police procedural: A girl is murdered, the cops investigate, a manhunt ensues. But there is nothing ordinary about the way Dennis Lehane wrote his 2001 best seller, which used the murder to dig deep into the troubled psyches of three friends who grew up together in working-class Boston. There’s nothing ordinary about the way screenwriter Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential) transforms the novel into a model of multilayered film adaptation. And there’s nothing ordinary about the way Eastwood merges all the elements into a movie of startling power and intimacy.
Mystic River has the coveted opening spot at the esteemed New York Film Festival on October 3rd. Then it’s on to grabbing audiences who aren’t scared off by the twisted side of human nature. Eastwood begins the film with a chilling flashback: Three boys playing street hockey are hassled by two plainclothes cops. One boy, Dave Boyle, is ordered into their car while the others watch. For Dave, the ride will end in a nightmare of sexual abuse from which he escapes but never recovers. His pals, Sean and Jimmy, don’t recover, either. Their guilt still scars them as adults.
These lost boys are the focus of the movie. Sean Penn plays Jimmy, an ex-con who has settled down to run a local market. It’s Jimmy whose teen daughter Katie (Emmy Rossum) has been murdered. Sean (Kevin Bacon), long estranged from Jimmy, is the detective assigned to the case. And Dave (Tim Robbins), married and a father yet visibly damaged by his past, is the prime suspect. He came home the night of Katie’s death covered in blood, a fact that his wife, Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden), keeps secret from everyone except Jimmy.
If you haven’t read the novel, don’t let anyone tell you what happens next. But it’s hard not to blab about how skillfully Eastwood brings the story to life. There’s a classic rigor to the film as the camera sweeps over Boston, distilling pages of the book into images that speak eloquently of class struggle and rogue justice. Eastwood, who composed the film’s brooding score, takes his unflashy time to develop characters. And his work with the actors is exemplary.
The sheer brilliance of Penn’s performance anchors the film. Jimmy may have gone straight, but there’s a coiled intensity in him ready to spring. Katie’s death is the catalyst. There is something in Jimmy that even his wife, Annabeth (Laura Linney), and their kids can’t touch. In a stellar career (Dead Man Walking, Sweet and Lowdown, the upcoming 21 Grams), this may be Penn’s most potent two hours onscreen. Do you want to see screen acting at its riskiest and most riveting? Watch Penn.
Bacon brings banked fire to the role of Sean, the cop who is reluctant at first to share the suspicions his partner, Whitey (Laurence Fishburne), harbors against Dave. And Robbins, a strapping actor, seems to have shrunk himself outside and inside to play Dave. He is quietly devastating, piercingly so when he tries to explain himself to Jimmy, who has lost the ability to listen.
Even the small roles are vividly acted. Rossum has only a few minutes onscreen as Katie, yet she registers indelibly. And Linney, who mostly watches and waits as Jimmy’s wife, is staggeringly good in a final scene that lets her outdo Lady Macbeth — sexy and scary — to make her husband see things her way.
The script dodges a few of the book’s raw spots, such as Dave’s war with himself as a potential child molester. But Eastwood doesn’t flinch from the guilt and the blood lust that drives these men, perhaps beyond redemption. Mystic River is a dark masterpiece that can stand with Unforgiven. It takes a piece out of you.