At the beginning of “Mystic River,” a devastating new film by Clint Eastwood, two young boys named Jimmy Markum and Sean Devine watch their friend Dave Boyle drive off with a stranger posing as a Boston police officer. The car pulls away smoothly, Dave looking back at his friends, trusting and hoping he has made the right decision. Eastwood’s camera follows behind the car, slowly pulling back and dissolving without a trace. The trust of a child has vanished along with the image, setting up a brilliantly conceived character study of heartbreaking proportions.
Flash forward 25 years. Dave (Tim Robbins), Jimmy (Sean Penn) and Sean (Kevin Bacon) now live separate lives. One cloudless summer day, Jimmy’s 19-year-old daughter is found murdered in a park nearby the old Boston neighborhood where all three men grew up. Sean, now a detective for the Massachusetts State Police, and his partner Whitey Powers (Laurence Fishburne) are assigned the case. The ensuing investigation brings the men’s memories of the past to a head, leaving no one unscathed.
“Mystic River” will be remembered for the aching drama of every scene. Eastwood has fashioned a showcase of brilliant method acting. Exuding pain from every possible angle, each performance is shrouded in inner turmoil. As Jimmy, the man who’s lost his daughter, Penn steams with appropriate anger. Rage builds under his skin only pouring out with the violence of a father whose guilt and shame make tragic bedfellows.
Bacon, as Detective Divine, gives an understated but spot-on performance, trying to stay objective in an investigation pressed with treachery. But it’s Robbins whose performance as Dave sends chills down Artsweek’s spine. His childhood ripped apart, Dave flounders within a space between depression and redemption, cursed to represent the innocent and fall prey to his own demons.
Great acting is often an extension of an excellent script, and “Mystic River” is no exception. Originally a novel by Dennis Lehane, Brian Helgeland’s (“L.A. Confidential”) adaptation goes for the jugular. Good and evil blur together, painting a human picture filled with loyalties and betrayals. The disturbing consequences of every action reverberate until the last frame.
Leaving the film, Artsweek felt a hole in our gut that very few film experiences produce. The haunting subject matter punctured something inside. The tenacity and dynamic will of the acting erases any semblance of false happiness within the story. Eastwood, who so often has been synonymous with cinematic stoicism, anger and pain, has constructed a film to question the process of violence, not as a single act, but an overlapping series of events, involving both past and present.
Some of the best films find a structured balance between storytelling and social commentary. “Mystic River” does this extremely well, telling a fascinating story and revealing the very human weaknesses and doubts that can rip a community apart. Eastwood and his crew have delivered a quality Hollywood product while producing a stunning commentary on trauma and pain.