IMDB #229 Mystic River

Whatup folks? Considering moving east? If so, Dennis Lehane would like you to keep in mind that Boston is where happiness goes to die. Or at least, in the two movies I’ve seen adapted from his work, Gone Baby Gone and today’s subject Mystic River, it’s certainly a dreary, downtrodden place of petty crime and broken hopes. But hey, both films are pretty good.

2003's Mystic River is a film I was ready to kill with a shovel if it took Best Picture from The Lord Of The Rings: Return Of The King. Fortunately that wasn't necessary. But will a mystery stand up to a second viewing?

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The Key Players:

Clint Eastwood (famous for being Clint Eastwood and stuff) directs, without appearing in front of the camera, working with an adapted screenplay by Brian Helgeland (screenwriter of everything from A Nightmare On Elm Street 4 to L. A. Confidential).

What made this movie shine come awards-time was a superb cast: Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, and Kevin Bacon are supported by the likes of Laura Linney, Marcia Gay Harden, Lawrence Fishburne, and Emmy Rossum.

The Story:

Penn, Robbins, and Bacon play three childhood friends who were caught writing their names in cement by two men who appeared to be cops. They made the young Robbins get in the car, and held him in a basement for four days (of extreme unpleasantness) before he escaped.

Flash-forward to the present day, and Robbins has grown into a fragile, nervous man, but with a wife (Harden) and son. Penn is a reformed criminal that owns a convenience store, with a wife (Linney) and three daughters (one of whom is Rossum). Bacon became a state cop, and has an estranged wife that he hasn’t talked to in six months.

Got all that? Good. Now, Penn’s daughter (Rossum) goes missing and is found murdered the next morning, the same night that Robbins comes home at three AM with someone’s blood all over him. He tells his wife a story about assaulting a mugger, but she’s suspicious.

Bacon and partner Fishburne are assigned the case (since she was found in a public park, I think), and he has the unpleasant task of dealing with Penn’s hotheaded, prison-tough grief and investigating Robbins for the crime. Problem is, Penn has a network of former associates that are more than willing to take the law into their own hands…

The Artisticness:

Apparently Boston also has a lot of bright, blue light, as nearly every shot in Mystic River ups the natural contrast to some degree. Lots of whiteouts accompany plaintive shots of tree leaves in the sunlight and pans up to the sky. Along with Clint Eastwood’s plaintive score (he’s a jack of all trades), it’s very clear that we’re watching a serious film. Seriously.

I haven’t read the book, but the plot unfolds at a pretty brisk pace in the early going- it’s only fifteen minutes before we’re through the childhood flashbacks, meeting all three as adults, and the night in question before it slows down for more character drama. I counted, and Sean Penn has at least five different “For Your Consideration” scenes to earn his first Best Actor statue, kicking off with the big “IS THAT MY DAUGHTER IN THERE?!” from the trailer.

I gotta say, the nature of the whodunit is much less compelling the second time through, which is not always a huge deal, but still.. more on this in a second. As two Oscars (Penn and Robbins) and another nomination (Harden) prove, Eastwood knows how to get the most from his cast, or maybe how to let them do their own thing. Laura Linney even throws in a highlight-reel scene at the very end after a mostly quiet role.

Sometimes Robbins internal pain can manifest itself with metaphors of wolves and vampires that sounds a little hammy in dialogue, but beyond that my only problems with the film are sort-of structural…


Harden takes her suspicions to Penn, he takes Robbins out to the docks to kill him (we find out that he’s had no trouble killing in the past). First he forces Robbins to admit to the crime, promising to be merciful. Then he stabs him. Oh well.

Meanwhile, Bacon apprehends the actual killer, the daughter’s boyfriend’s little brother (he’s mute, he has issues), and we discover that Robbins actually killed a pedophile he saw with a child prostitute. Penn is forced to live with having killed the wrong man, Bacon knows about it but can’t begin to prove anything, and Harden is left out in the cold, essentially.

I gotta say, the first time I saw this, I didn’t tax myself to try and second guess things (nor was I familiar with Lehane’s super-twisty style), so I didn’t see all that coming, and it was a punch to the gut. Watching it again…yes the twists are hinted at enough, but it’s actually kind of aggravating how manipulative the movie needs to be to accomplish it.

Let me explain- one of my least favorite things in “serious dramas” is when events need to happen so specifically wrong at just the right time, in just the wrong way to affect a tragic outcome. You can’t use the hand of plot devices to cause fifteen different implausible things to happen at once and then step back at the end and say “that’s life!” (Prime examples of this phenomenon that grate me more every time I see them: American Beauty, The House Of Sand And Fog, and Crash).

So seeing the number of times they needed to protract the police investigation to miss Penn’s decision by a few hours, or the number of times Robbins had to intentionally keep silent about what he really had been doing… ugh. Spare me.

The worst is when the police call Robbins in for questioning a second time, armed with evidence of blood in the trunk of his car. After being essentially a nervous wreck for the entire film, he’s all of a sudden a steely-eyed operator, and proceeds to talk his way out of jail (in time to get killed) because he knows about loopholes in the obtaining of evidence. Please.


Overall: Should It Be Higher, Lower?

Well, if you read the spoiler section, you can tell I’m not so high on this one. I’m tempted to say I liked Gone Baby Gone better, but that had a solid plot with some weak spots in the cast for me (namely a useless Michelle Monaghan and a there-for-the-paycheck Morgan Freeman).

The Legacy:

Well, it got the two Oscars, as mentioned, and plenty of other circuit honors that year, and it’s part of a very consistent late-career dominance by Eastwood. So it’ll be remembered.

The Best Video Of It On YouTube

Sean Penn Oscar clip number 2: him trying to put up with his “old school” father in law on the day of the funeral before nearly flipping out on him. Hard to believe the guy’s only got the one statue.

Leftover Thoughts:

  • Penn became a criminal and Bacon a cop, because those are the only two occupations available to young men in the Boston area. Watch The Departed.
  • I would enjoying a lot of movies a lot more if I could get my brain to stop asking questions. It’s odd, because I never go to other types of films and ask “why can these hedgehogs talk to begin with?”

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