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A review of Mystic River

click to enlarge Sean Penn and Marcia Gay Harden in Mystic River .
  • Sean Penn and Marcia Gay Harden in Mystic River .

*Mystic River (R)
Focus Features

The flats" are a Boston neighborhood, home to the fleeting remnants of the white urban working class and the imagined setting of Clint Eastwood's recent grief-laden tragedy.

Based on a Dennis Lahane novel, Mystic River is a triptych character study and a mournful noir that flirts with being a traditional thriller, but thankfully isn't.

While inscribing their names in wet cement, three neighborhood boys are confronted by two men assumed to be cops. One boy is coaxed into their car, and taken to a dark basement where he's raped for four days.

Flash forward 25 years, and the three boys have grown up and apart, for better and for worse. Jimmy Markum (Sean Penn) is trying to make good after a prison bid. When his 19-year-old daughter is brutally and inexplicably murdered, the film takes off in a frenzy of grief, rage and unearthed secrets sprawling out of control.

The murder returns Sean Devine (Kevin Bacon) back to the neighborhood inhabited by his estranged friends who never left -- a place where dads still drink in dive bars, where encroaching gourmet coffee is seen as an affront to communal decency and the harbinger of an unwelcome gentrification.

A detective with the state police, Devine and his partner Whitey Powers (Laurence Fishburne) pursue the case whole hog, competing with the extra-legal investigation launched by Jimmy and his nefarious goons, the appropriately named Savage brothers.

Returning to the grief scene is Dave Boyle, the boy who went in the car and returned as "damaged goods." Played with an entranced vulnerability by Tim Robbins, Boyle reconnects with Jimmy, whose wife (Laura Linney) is the cousin of his own bumbling doormat of a spouse (Marcia Gay Harden).

Mystic River is about damaged men and their grief laced with the haunting question of "what if?" Eastwood does a remarkable job of balancing his character's salt-of-the-earth machismo with equal amounts of recrimination and regret. As a counterpoint, consider Barry Levinson's wretched rape revenge film Sleepers, where another set of working-class victims deal with their abuse exclusively through legal and extra-legal vengeance. To stick it to their rapists, Levinson asserts, is equated with a greater emotional reconciliation.

In Eastwood's world, victimhood is not so simple. As manifested through Robbins' Oscar-worthy performance, scars of the past stoop your walk, sully your face and take residence in your soul until you have no idea what you'd look like without it. Boyle's seizure of misplaced violence is seen not as noble vigilantism but a manifestation of his inability to overcome.

While Robbins carries his abuse on his sleeve, Penn oscillates between states of apoplectic vengeance, and vulnerable self-reflection. Bacon, the film's emotional and moral center, does his best to stay bound to his professional responsibility. This is made increasingly difficult, as he's forced to grapple with two conflicting codes of justice: the one he's sworn to enforce and the more efficient and brutal sort conducted by Jimmy and the Savage brothers.

Eastwood put his second unit to good work, utilizing foreboding aerial shots to suggest a community set to explode, if not from this particular murder than from lifetimes of them. Capturing a sense of place is rarely the strong suit of American filmmaking, but Eastwood's sad streets of urban New England match the haggard faces of its inhabitants to a T.

A final husband-wife showdown between Linney and Penn comes out of nowhere to serve as a trite emotional plot point. It's a forgivable offense, but glaringly overwrought compared with the film's even-keeled restraint.

Penn competes with Robbins for a man lost in the confused morality of an honor code he seems on the cusp of transcending. But there's no simple closure for any of these men; the reopening of an old wound only drags them deeper into a darkness that's shared by a community bent on denial.

-- John Dicker

Tinseltown, Cinemark 16

  • A review of Mystic River

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