Even for Hollywood, which tends to specialize in the offbeat and bizarre, Clint Eastwood's career has followed a rather unusual pattern. After several years playing minor film roles and a longish stint in a television Western series, he journeyed to Europe, where many American actors go to work after they die, but unlike many of his compatriots, returned triumphantly as the compelling, enigmatic hero of some memorable spaghetti Westerns.
While continuing to ride the dusty trails and tame the wild towns, he also starred in some important cop flicks and crime thrillers. He survived hundreds of bullets, as well as the deadly attacks of the powerful and idiosyncratic Pauline Kael, queen of reviewers, eventually becoming the figure we all know, one of the great international cinema icons of our time.
After writing, directing, producing, and acting in a great many motion pictures, and running the company that makes those pictures, Eastwood remains one of the few contemporary directors who truly deserves that overused, abused, and much misunderstood appellation of auteur. In addition to his inclination, as actor and director, toward the more violent genres, he takes risks with other sorts of films, undaunted by such failures as Bronco Billy, Bird, and The Bridges of Madison County. With his new movie, Mystic River, Eastwood attempts something quite different from his work in the past, a bleak and gloomy meditation on tragedy and guilt masquerading as a murder mystery.
The picture, which adheres closely to the original novel, explores the lives of three men, childhood friends who have drifted apart, in a working-class neighborhood in Boston. One of the three, a detective named Sean Devine (Kevin Bacon), returns to the neighborhood to investigate the murder of the daughter of another of the trio, Jimmy Markum (Sean Penn), owner of a convenience store and small-time mobster. One of the suspects is the third man, Dave Boyle (Tim Robbins). Although the central mystery and the police investigation proceed in a familiar and orthodox manner, arriving at an acceptable conclusion, they really exist in order to provide the means for another sort of inquiry, the exhumation of a past that shapes the lives of all three men.
The pattern of their present lives begins in an incident from their shared childhood, when two men bully the three boys and kidnap and molest Dave. That crime opens the movie and recurs in flashbacks and memory throughout, linking them all in pain and shame. The two survivors are haunted by the knowledge that they simply watched the men drive off with the frightened child, and aware that they could themselves have been in his place. Dave himself has understandably been emotionally crippled by the crime, which governs his behavior throughout the movie.
Sean Penn's character reacts to the devastating loss of his beloved daughter with an investigation of his own, assisted by a couple of his cohorts, which he plans to conclude by punishing the murderer himself. He and Bacon work along parallel lines, both suspecting the same man, but both misinterpreting the evidence they uncover. Since Penn and his thugs feel no need to obey any particular rules, they can more efficiently harass their quarry and coerce a confession from him. The audience cannot know the truth of the event, so must for a while trust the methods of both men and arrive at the same incorrect and tragic conclusions.
Despite its solid and relatively satisfying mystery, Mystic River really confronts another sort of puzzle, the insoluble persistence of grief and guilt, which makes everyone both victim and criminal. Although all the characters reach the solution to the central mystery, they find no resolution in their own lives, only a sense of pain and loss. The extraordinary performances of the principals capture the complexity of their condition, in which all the characters come to an inarticulate recognition of their permanently blighted future.
The movie demonstrates Eastwood's ability to direct actors as well as action. Though Sean Penn's intense and complicated portrayal of grief, anger, and cold hatred dominates a good deal of the picture, the director gives each actor his own major scene and a number of powerfully affective moments. Tim Robbins's hesitant, nervous manner suggests the inner pain of a man suffering over and over the trauma of a terrible violation and betrayal, the victim's sense of shame, the loss of a childhood he constantly seeks to recapture.
Perhaps lost in the remarkable performances of the three major characters, the supporting cast, especially Laura Linney and Marcia Gay Harden as Penn's and Robbins's wives, creates a credible emotional context. In a bleakly ironic sequence concluding the picture, Harden suggests through some simple facial expressions the full impact of the whole tragic story, in which no hint of hope seems possible, only loss and sorrow. Her last moments reflect the rich, understated eloquence of a remarkable and heartbreaking film, a triumph for its cast and its director.
Mystic River, starring Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon, Laurence Fishburne, Laura Linney, Marcia Gay Harden, Kevin Chapman, Adam Nelson, Thomas Guiry, Emmy Rossum, Spencer Treat Clark; based on the novel by Dennis Lehane; screenplay by Brian Helgeland; directed by Clint Eastwood. Cinemark Tinseltown; Hoyts Greece Ridge; Pittsford Plaza Cinema; Regal Eastview; Regal Henrietta.
You can hear George and his movie reviews on WXXI-FM 91.5 Fridays at 7:20 a.m., rerun on Saturdays at 8:50 a.m.