Mystic River

reviewed by Steve Sailer

UPI, October 13, 2003


In case you are as easily confused as I am, let me first make clear that "Mystic River" is not at all a sequel to Julia Roberts' "Mystic Pizza." Instead, it's a long, grim murder mystery with many admirable elements. "Mystic River" even aspires to the stature of tragedy, but sadly winds up being a cheap holiday in other people's misery.

Sean Penn stars as an ex-robber gone straight whose beautiful daughter is murdered. His estranged childhood friend, Kevin Bacon, is the police detective assigned to the case. They each begin to suspect another old buddy from the neighborhood, Tim Robbins, who hasn't been quite right in the head since a Catholic priest raped him as a boy. Will Bacon's legal justice or Penn's vigilante vengeance prevail?

Penn became a star as the surfer dude in 1982's "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" and turned in an astonishing character lead in 1985's "The Falcon and the Snowman" as a weaselly rich kid turned drug dealer and traitor.

His 1980s comic performances alternated dazzlingly with James-Dean-on-steroids dramatic turns. Critics much admired Penn for changing his entire body shape for each role. His superhuman muscle-building, however, coincided with numerous fistfights and other violent incidents that looked suspiciously like what bodybuilders call "'roid rage."

Eventually, he did a month in jail and Madonna divorced him. He temporarily retired from acting, but re-emerged triumphantly in 1995 in "Dead Man Walking."

"Mystic River" provides Penn with perhaps the Sean Penniest role of his career. Always the fiercest of Method actors, here, as the tormented father, he achieves the intensity of a rabid ferret.

Still, Penn's not suited to play the tragic hero, who, since the time of Sophocles and Aristotle, has been a larger than life figure of flawed greatness. We find his demise cathartic because he has so far to fall. Penn, on the other hand, is a small, wrinkly rodent of a man.

As a director, Clint Eastwood is also a critics' favorite, but that's largely because his strong, masculine persona and fairly homogenous slate of films are readily analyzable within the auteur theory. Movie buffs gravitate toward this intellectualized form of hero worship to impose an unrealistic degree of order on the cooperative chaos that is film history.

In reality, Eastwood's main directing gifts are that he has an above-average eye for buying scripts, is good with actors, and works inexpensively. Thus, he's been given a free hand by the studios to make a lot of movies (24 since he began at age 40). His overall batting average isn't exceptional, but he's taken enough swings that he's hit a few homers and one grand slam: "Unforgiven."

Eastwood and screenwriter Brian Helgeland ("L.A. Confidential") had previously teamed up for last year's "Blood Work," a detective thriller built on one of those faintly perverse ideas that traditionally enliven Eastwood's films. Clint played a detective recuperating from a heart transplant who is hired to hunt down the killer of the woman whose heart is beating within him.

Unfortunately, "Blood Work" stumbled for several reasons. As an actor, Eastwood, who is now 73, is too old and tired to be a leading man anymore. As a producer, he's too much of a tightwad, and as a director, he's too slight of a visual artist to do anything fresh with "Blood Work's" hackneyed Los Angeles settings.

Finally, Helgeland's screenplay suffered from the standard problem with movie mysteries: too few characters to prevent you from guessing the killer through a process of elimination.

"Mystic River" fixes all these weaknesses. Eastwood stayed behind the camera and instead hired actors around age 40 whose talents exceed their pay scale. Besides Penn, Robbins, and Bacon, there's Laurence Fishburne, Marcia Gay Harden, and Laura Linney, all doing fine work. And the 87-year-old Eli Wallach adds some zest to the gloom.

"Mystic River" isn't an expensive-looking movie, but at least Clint got out of L.A. and filmed on location in a Boston working class neighborhood.

And while "Blood Work" had only one rationally possible bad guy, "Mystic River" is stuffed with red herring characters. This time, nobody is going to guess who-dun-it, because the solution dispenses with all logic.

If you don't expect the plot to stand up to analysis, you'll enjoy the emoting more. Unfortunately, all the coincidences and implausibilities (especially Robbins' wife's decision to confess her suspicions to the crazed Penn rather than the judicious Bacon) undermine the attempt at tragedy, which requires a sense of fate's inevitability.

Indeed, the plot would have worked better as a tragedy if Eastwood had turned it into a Western, set beyond the reach of the law. Instead, Bacon seems so competent of a detective that Penn's decision to operate outside the law after a decade of being a good citizen seems untragically gratuitous.

Rated R for language and violence.

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