Mystic River

Movie Review by Stephen Doyle

Starring: Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon, Laurence Fishburne, Marcia Gay Harden

Director: Clint Eastwood

All throughout watching MYSTIC RIVER I was reminded of the tense and sinister atmosphere of Sean Penn’s brilliant film THE PLEDGE. Both films turn potboiler detective yarns into fine art, both are shot with great lyricism and both revel in depths of human misery not usually seen in American cinema.

I don’t want to reveal too much of the plot, as watching how director Clint Eastwood skilfully unravels the complex story is one of the film’s chief pleasures, but here is a small outline of the action anyway. A brief prologue shows three school friends, Jimmy Markum (Sean Penn), Dave Boyle (Tim Robbins) and Sean Devine (Kevin Bacon) playing hockey in the street. Dave is suddenly abducted by two unsavoury looking old men, who hold him captive for four days. This tragedy causes the friends to drift apart until 25 years later another tragedy – the murder of Jimmy’s daughter – brings them back together in unexpected ways. The hunt begins to find out who killed Jimmy’s daughter and at this point the film becomes two things at once – a supreme police procedural movie (possibly the best whodunit of the year), as well as an intense and totally plausible human drama.

Despite some risky casting (Robbins and Bacon are cast against type), the performances are excellent. Robbins usually lays larger then life genial characters and is here nearly unrecognizable as a grey-haired, flabby-faced, monosyllabic father, who is coming perilously close to losing his sanity. Meanwhile, Bacon, best known for playing oddballs and villains here plays the handsome and upright hero of the piece. He delivers a wonderfully tame performance, not something he does very often. Of the other actors, Penn is at his emotive best, while Laurence Fishburne adds presence to what is really only a supporting role.

Complaints will inevitably be made about the films long running time (137 minutes) and its funeral pace. But a film is only overlong if it does not have enough relevant story to fill the running time, and story is one thing this film does not lack. Indeed, I would not have minded if this film ran for a bit longer – it would have made a fine 3-hour epic. As for the funeral pace, the film does move slowly but the long scenes allow the characters space to breath and develop, and allows the actors to dig their teeth into their roles. Furthermore, Eastwood makes sure that a vital, and usually surprising, piece of plot information or character development is never far away, so the film remains gripping throughout.

The finale is American cinema at its best. The whole film had me totally gripped but the finale in particular had me leaning on the edge of my seat, mouth gaping open, breathlessly anticipating every word of dialogue, waiting to find out what was going to happen next. I near fell of my seat when the scene ended with a dazzling white light engulfing the screen – a sublime expressionistic touch from Eastwood and, truly, one of the finest cinematic moments of the year.

I’m never good at predicting which films will feature at the Oscars, but I will be heartily disappointed if MYSTIC RIVER does not pick up, at the very least, a handful of nominations.

6 out of 6 stars