Warner Bros. // 2003 // 138 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // June 8th, 2004
We bury our sins, we wash them clean.
Mystic River is director Clint Eastwood's (The Outlaw Josey Wales, Bird, The Bridges of Madison County) film adaptation of Dennis Lehane's (A Drink Before the War) psychological crime novel of the same name. Graced with Brian Helgeland's finest screenplay since L.A. Confidential, and one of the best ensemble casts in the past decade or so, the veteran director delivers his most impressive and satisfying film since 1992's Unforgiven.
While playing street hockey with his buddies Jimmy Markum and Sean Devine in their Buckingham Flats neighborhood in Boston, Dave Boyle is abducted by pedophiles pretending to be cops. What he suffers over the next four days changes his life -- as well as the lives of Jimmy and Sean -- forever.
Twenty-five years later, Dave Boyle's (Tim Robbins, Bull Durham, The Shawshank Redemption) wife, Celeste (Marcia Gay Hardin, Miller's Crossing, Pollack), is awakened in the wee hours of the morning by his return from a night out at the bars. He's covered in blood and claims he had a run-in with a mugger. Later that day, Sean Devine (Kevin Bacon, Footloose, Apollo 13) -- now a homicide detective -- and his partner Whitey Powers (Laurence Fishburne, What's Love Got to Do with It, The Matrix) are summoned to the scene of a murder. The victim is Jimmy Markum's (Sean Penn, Dead Man Walking, 21 Grams) eldest daughter, Katie.
As Sean and Whitey try to solve the mystery of the girl's death, and Jimmy and his wife, Annabeth (Laura Linney, The Truman Show, You Can Count on Me), struggle to deal with their grief, Dave becomes increasingly erratic and disturbed, leading Celeste to suspect he may be responsible for the murder.
Perhaps only a director of Clint Eastwood's generation -- he's 74 now; how did that happen? -- could deliver a noir murder mystery unadorned by postmodern irony or explicit references to the classic entries in the genre dating back 50 and 60 years. Maybe only someone old enough to have a childhood connection to the noir of directors like John Huston (The Maltese Falcon) and Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity) would have the audacity to offer today's seen-it-all-before generation of filmgoers a mystery tale that doesn't ditch the hard work of developing clever sleight of hand in favor of a coy, self-reflexive narrative and heaps of homage meant to reassure the audience of how smart and hip they are.
Mystic River is an earnest, unpretentious murder mystery that keeps us off balance by pretending -- quite convincingly -- to be a character psychodrama. It uses our expectations about the fallout of child sexual abuse, hammered home by our culture of pop psychology, to fake us out and sell its mystery. Because one isn't entirely certain of the film's genre the first time through, it's difficult to assess whether Eastwood and company are simply telling a character story, or presenting us with the red herrings necessary for a satisfying mystery. In fact, they're doing both. The theme underpinning the film's murder investigation is the dire and inescapable consequences of circumstance and personal choice. But the childhood sexual abuse that forever alters the life trajectories of the three principal characters ends up being an ancillary expression of that theme (at least as far as the murder plot is concerned); the film is actually about unbreakable cycles of revenge, and the influence of fathers (whether present or absent) over the lives of their children. We learn in the end that the fatalistic unfolding of plot is a consequence of the choices of Jimmy Markum, a character who didn't suffer abuse, though it was only chance that made a victim of his friend, Dave Boyle, instead of him. The movie sucker punches us by creating a chicken-or-the-egg scenario of nurture and nature: our circumstances determine our choices, which determine our circumstances -- where does it all stop and, more importantly, where does it begin?
Ironically, the film is most celebrated for the depth of its performances. Sean Penn received a much-deserved Oscar for his rich, deeply-emotional, but surprisingly restrained performance (despite the Oscar-clip histrionics in the "Is that my daughter in there?" scene that's become the film's hallmark). Tim Robbins also picked up an Oscar for his work as the psychologically shattered Dave Boyle, which is nearly as impressive as Penn's. Kevin Bacon and Laurence Fishburne are an engaging cop duo, Fishburne's Whitey Powers acting as the voice of objectivity in a case that clearly resonates emotionally with Bacon's character. And Marcia Gay Hardin and Laura Linney are entirely convincing as the wives of men who are opposite numbers -- one weak, one strong, their psyches separated only by a horrible chance event on a neighborhood street when they were boys. Add to this strong primary ensemble work an emotionally complex character performance by Tom Guiry (Tigerland) as Katie Markum's boyfriend; spot-on work by Adam Nelson and Robert Wahlberg, who deliver just the right amount of menace as the Savage brothers, Jimmy Markum's street muscle; and a wonderful cameo by Eastwood's The Good, the Bad and the Ugly co-star, Eli Wallach, and you've got more great acting than you can shake a stick at.
But the film's insular Buckingham Flats setting, and a tightly circular plot that leaves no loose ends and relies a bit on coincidence undermines it as a true character study -- unlike genre films, real human lives are sloppy and littered with ambiguity and unsolved mysteries. Eastwood's shell game is to draw us into the characters' lives in order to make us lose sight of the mechanics of plot. It's a brilliant and effect conceit. The result is a film that uses our modern sensibilities and expectations to surprise us, and finds a fresh approach to an old genre in the process.
Warner Brothers brings Mystic River to DVD in three versions: single-disc releases in both widescreen and full screen formats, as well as a three-disc Deluxe Edition with the widescreen version of the film on the first disc, supplements on the second, plus a CD with the movie's soundtrack. This review covers the three-disc version, whose 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer was struck from pristine sources, and accurately reproduces Eastwood's purposely muted color palette. The only major flaw with the image is some pronounced haloing from edge enhancement in isolated scenes. All in all, the movie looks gorgeous. For those looking for a leaner, lower-priced option, I'm sure the single-disc widescreen release contains the same transfer.
Audio is sometimes limited by the location recording, and the dialogue-heavy nature of the picture doesn't provide much opportunity for reference-quality surrounds or LFE, but it's a strong 5.1 presentation of the source. The minimalist score by Clint and Kyle Eastwood is the primary beneficiary of the lush surround treatment.
In addition to the film, Disc One contains an audio commentary by Kevin Bacon and Tim Robbins (I assume the single-disc editions also contain this supplement). The track is primarily anecdotal, and the two men spend a lot of time fawning over their fellow actors and Eastwood, though Robbins -- who directed Penn in Dead Man Walking -- regularly offers concrete insight into both directorial and acting technique. The commentary's single major failing is large gaps of silence as the men seemingly become engrossed with what they're seeing.
The supplements on Disc Two are surprisingly thin and lacking in substance. Mystic River: Beneath the Surface is a 23-minute electronic press kit piece that fails to live up to its title. Eastwood and the film's actors all participate, as do screenwriter Brian Helgeland and novelist Dennis Lehane, but the whole thing feels like they're shilling rather than offering real insight. The 12-minute featurette, Mystic River: From Page to Screen is even more throwaway. Originally produced as a promo piece to air on Bravo, it draws most of its footage from the same interviews as Beneath the Surface and is entirely redundant.
In truth, Disc Two's primary supplement is a trio of interviews from the Charlie Rose Show that originally aired between October and December 2003. Eastwood, Robbins, and Bacon each sit down with Rose separately and discuss the film as well as other aspects of their careers. The three interviews can be played separately or strung together via a Play All feature. Combined, they run nearly two hours in length.
Teaser and theatrical trailers round out the extras on Disc Two.
Disc Three is a full-length CD that houses the film's score.
Despite the overall success of the film as a genre piece, and the extraordinary quality of the acting, Mystic River does, at times, fall prey to its literary roots. One of the best examples of these minor stumbles is found, unfortunately, in the film's emotional denouement. A chilling conversation between Linney and Penn is bogged down by so much metaphoric language that it provides clear glimpses of Linney behind the façade of her character, acting. The scene is entirely necessary, but Helgeland should have been less judicious about trimming away Lehane's more literary prose. The emotion of the scene is right on the money, but a few of the lines are real clunkers, not at all the sort of language that would flow from the lips of the wife of a convenient store owner in working-class Boston.
While the lightweight supplements on this three-disc Deluxe Edition of Clint Eastwood's Mystic River are a disappointment, the film is not. The acting alone is worth the price of admission; the fact that these great performances contribute to a satisfying mystery plot only makes the deal sweeter.
Review content copyright © 2004 Dan Mancini; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Golden Gavel 2004 Nominee
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
Running Time: 138 Minutes
Release Year: 2003
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Commentary by Kevin Bacon and Tim Robbins
* Mystic River: Beneath the Surface Featurette
* Mystic River: From Page to Screen Featurette
* Charlie Rose Show Interviews
* Soundtrack CD
* Official Site