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Mystic River

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Mystic River

Starring: Sean Penn, Tim Robbins
Director: Clint Eastwood
Rated: R
RunTime: 137 Minutes
Release Date: October 2003
Genres: Drama, Suspense, Thriller

*Also starring: Kevin Bacon, Laurence Fishburne, Marcia Gay Harden, Kevin Chapman, Laura Linney, Cameron Bowen, Emmy Rossum, Ken Cheeseman, Charley Broderick

Review by Harvey Karten
3½ stars out of 4

The standard quip that some people make when they hear that a friend aspires to become a novelist is, "'re going to write the Great American Novel?" Each generation, dating back to Hawthorne, Thoreau, Emerson, Melville and more recently, perhaps, Jonathan Franzen, has produced what we might subjectively call just that. As for the legitimate stage, Arthur Miller and Eugene O'Neill are considered the best that American dramatists have offered, with Miller knocking out the Great American Drama, "Death of a Salesman" while still a young man, and O'Neill burning up the stage with the most intense family plays ever, "Long Day's Journey Into Night."

Dirty Harry would probably be the guy you'd least expect to aspire to The Great American Film, particularly now at a time that the golden age of the 1970's has passed us by, but while Arthur Miller has produced nothing of major note in the last fifteen years, Eastwood at the age of seventy-three is at the height of his powers. "Mystic River," which opened the New York Film Festival this year, has already been touted as not only Eastwood's crowning achievement, but as a work which allows Sean Penn to evoke one of the finest acting roles of the last half century.

"Mystic River" is a fine piece of film making, no doubt, but David Denby of The New Yorker magazine is overextended in calling this "a historic achievement" and The New York Times is overboard is comparing the film to "a Shakespearean play." While Eastwood, relying on Brian Helgeland's screenplay which Helgeland adapted from Dennis Lehane's novel, has avoided the melodramatic sins that puncutate daytime TV, there are no tragic heroes here. To the Greeks and Elizabethans, a tragic hero is a flawed individual who meets his downfall because of his weakness. Still, the trio of former pals in a working-class, mostly Irish-Catholic district of Boston each has his flaws and those weaknesses lead to misfortunes, albeit of varying proportions.

The three who had played hockey in the streets of the 1970's (just as my generation played stickball and stoop ball and punch ball with our spaldeens), have grown apart over the years, brought together in their thirties by the murder of a 19-year-old girl, Katie (Emmy Rossum). Jimmy (Sean Penn), who did two years of time for robbery and may have taken revenge against the guy who did him in, is confronted one day by the murder of his daughter. He's a small-timer who's making a go as the proprietor of a neighborhood store. Sean (Kevin Bacon) is doing best of the trio, serving as a detective with the Massachusetts State Police with his partner, Whitey (Laurence Fishburne). Dave (Tim Robbins), the most neurotic of the three, had been traumatized at the age of eleven when shoved into a car by a man claiming to be a cop, held for four days in a basement, and sexually abused until he was able to flee. Like so many victims of rape, he is traumatized. His life becomes a mess, He has turned into a fellow with unsteady jobs who walks with a stoop.

On one level, this is the story of a manhunt by the two police detectives who are following rational leads, and the father of the victim, who is determined to catch and kill the person who senselessly and malicious killed a woman with no known enemies. On the deeper level, this is the story of three working- class men of various degrees of distinction and the diverse trio of women who married them: specifically Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden), the wife of the disturbed Dave; Annabeth (Laura Linney), the strongest of the three women and married to the revenge-seeking Jimmy; and Sean's estranged wife, who exists until the very end as a series of silent calls on Sean's cell phone.

Eastwood penetrates the blue-collar culture using considerable dialogue found in Dennis Lehane's novel, which throws hints at the audience on motives that various folks may have had, even suggesting that the killer could be the young man with whom the murdered girl was planning to elope, Brendan Harris (Thomas Guiry), who has reasons to take his own revenge on Jimmy for a deed Jimmy had allegedly committed some time back.

Like Eugene O'Neill's "Long Days Journey into Night," "Mystic River" is blessed by an intensity of family feeling, Sean Penn delivering a nuanced and powerful performance as a guy trying to forget his younger days as a small-time hood but whom circumstances propel into howls of horror and rantings of revenge. Clint Eastwood, who composed the ominous music which never overplays its scene, has gone well beyond the cheap but effective melodrama of "Absolute Power" and the sentimentality of "Madison County" to deliver a film that builds upon his award-winning "Unforgiven." This time, he has helmed yet another Western, albeit one that takes place in a conservative blue-collar district of the East. The picture could fall short of being a commercial success, given the slow, deliberate tempo wherein the workings of each character are peeled, but at its core, "Mystic River" is solid, middlebrow entertainment.

Copyright 2003 Harvey Karten

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