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With: Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon, Laurence Fishburne, Marcia Gay Harden, Laura Linney
Written by: Brian Helgeland, based on the novel by Dennis Lehane
Directed by: Clint Eastwood
MPAA Rating: R for language and violence
Running Time: 138
Date: 22/05/2003

Mystic River (2003)

4 Stars (out of 4)

'River' Wild

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Buy Mystic River on DVD.

After three very good pulpy potboilers, True Crime, Space Cowboys and Blood Work, Clint Eastwood has taken off the kid gloves and hunkered down to work. The result, Mystic River, is yet another great film from one of the half-dozen greatest American filmmakers working today.

Taken from the novel by Dennis Lehane and adapted by Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential, Blood Work), Mystic River details a Boston murder case that brings three childhood friends back together.

As children, Jimmy, Sean and Dave are playing hockey in the street when a grown man pretending to be a cop whisks Dave away in the back of his car. The resulting traumatic experience, four days locked in a basement, leaves the grown Dave (Tim Robbins) shaken -- a "basket case" as one character calls him.

The grown Sean (Kevin Bacon) is now a cop, working with a wisecracking partner called Whitey (Laurence Fishburne). And Jimmy (Sean Penn) runs a corner store, has several daughters including a precocious 19 year-old, and seems to enjoy several Godfather-like ties to the underworld. His wife (Laura Linney) encourages him in slightly frightening ways.

When Jimmy's eldest daughter turns up murdered, Sean takes the case and Dave -- who came home that night with blood on his hands -- is one of the suspects.

Actually, the murder case only serves as a means to an end. Mystic River more or less guides its characters toward some inexorable fate, predetermined at the moment young Dave gets in the car. In this way, Mystic River takes on a Sergio Leone-like epic nature, with a cruel God its major player. (A smaller tribute to Leone comes with a nifty walk-on by Eli Wallach, Eastwood's The Good, the Bad and the Ugly co-star.)

Along with John Carpenter, Eastwood remains one of the last of a dying breed of meat-and-potatoes filmmakers, descended from Howard Hawks and Raoul Walsh. Falling somewhere between arty showoffs and hacks-for-hire, Eastwood believes in storytelling above all, followed by providing any and all details to make that storytelling a rich experience. In short, he cares.

Looking back over just about any scene in the film, one can take away fruitful little moments of truth. As Dave's hapless, slightly dim wife, Marcia Gay Harden gets away with most of them. She continues to check the papers for some mention of Dave's cover story -- that blood on his hands came from a mugger -- and we can constantly see the frustrated indecision in her eyes.

Robbins also demonstrates how to show a character constantly thinking. His haggard face reveals signs of having been worn down by constant nightmares, and constant re-thinking of his fate. At one point Dave sits and watches Carpenter's Vampires on TV and compares his life (unfavorably) to one of the bloodsucker's, the bottle of an untouched beer poking up from between his knees.

Penn, in addition, gives one show-stopping scene after another, unleashing his anger, grief and frustration, oftentimes crumpled up on a stoop or in a deck chair, staring at nothing. But it would be wrong to single out any one of these performances. Eastwood has assembled a bonanza cast here and each comes out shining.

Above all, Mystic River shows Eastwood unafraid of the dark. Rather, he's drawn again and again to pessimistic stories about man waffling between ego and id and eventually losing to the latter. In films as varied as Tightrope, Bird and Unforgiven he simultaneously explores the unholy lure of violence while exposing its nauseating underbelly.

Admittedly, Eastwood has picked up a few bad habits previously belonging to John Ford, an overuse of music, oddly-placed bits of comedy business and a penchant for closing speeches. But those foibles made Ford no less of an artist, and the same goes for Eastwood.

Eastwood leaves Mystic River off with a wordless exchange, characters eyeballing each other across the street while a noisy parade trumpets past. It's a devastating, perplexing ending, leaving us with a kind of "what do we do now?" feel. But we know in our heart of hearts that the answer won't be anything nice. Fate's heavy hand has still not relaxed its grip.

(This review originally appeared in The San Francisco Examiner.)

DVD Details: Warner Home Video has surely scored one of the year's best DVDs with this three-disc set. All it lacks is a Clint Eastwood commentary track. It does have a very good track by Tim Robbins (himself an accomplished director) and Kevin Bacon, who contributes a couple of brief Eastwood impersonations. The second disc comes with a couple of fairly routine "making-of" featurettes, plus two hours worth of Charlie Rose interviews with Eastwood, Robbins and Bacon as well as two theatrical trailers. The third disc is a 60-minute CD soundtrack album, with Eastwood's original score, plus two songs by his son Kyle. Warners has also released a cheaper movie-only version for budget-conscious collectors.

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