MYSTIC RIVER

Directed by Clint Eastwood. USA. 2003.


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Having spent the past twenty five years making other actors look good in a plethora of supporting roles, Kevin Bacon has carved out a quite a niche for himself as the best second fiddle in the business. From bit parts in movies like National Lampoonís Animal House (1978), and Diner (1982), he briefly flit into centre stage in 1984ís Footloose. But whether accidental or deliberate since then, Bacon has made a career out of positioning himself slightly left of centre, playing edgy, often tortured characters and turning up quietly brilliant performances in films such as Flatliners (1990), JFK (1992) and A Few Good Men (1992). Having built up a hefty back catalogue that it as wide as it is deep when it comes to diversification, Bacon is no stranger to playing slightly offbeat characters. From deranged convict Henri Young in Murder in the First (1995), double-crossing Sergeant Ray Duquette in Wild Things (1998) and as the evil parole officer cum child abuser, Sean Noakes in Sleepers (1996), through to his latest two celluloid incarnations - as Meg Ryanís stalker in Jane Campionís much hyped In the Cut (2003), and as a detective in Mystic River, the screen adaptation of Dennis Lehaneís best selling novel, Bacon has consistently proved that despite a lack of starring roles he is one of the most consummate performers in the industry.

Directed by veteran Clint Eastwood, Mystic River shares a lot of common ground with Sleepers. Both were adapted from best selling novels, with revenge and redemption as their central themes they deal with the ramifications of child abuse and itís legacy against the backdrop of Catholicism. As the New York youngsters abused at reform school in Sleepers join together as adults to exact revenge on their tormentors, in Mystic River the father of a murdered teenager seeks vengeance for his daughters life and puts himself and his two former best friends on a collision course that was set in motion twenty-five years ago when one of them was kidnapped and abused. 

Mystic River is a haunting, compelling gritty drama that is grounded in an all too familiar realism. Patiently executed and extremely well told, Eastwood guides us into a dark urban working class world tinged with a dangerous undercurrent of violence and revenge. The film opens with a disturbing prologue, beginning in the late 1970ís in South Boston. Playing out on the streets of their neighbourhood one afternoon, best friends, Jimmy Markum, Sean Devine and Dave Boyle see the course of their lives cataclysmically change direction with one horrifyingly turn of events. After being caught scratching their names into a square of wet cement, Dave is lured into a car by two men masquerading as plainclothes policemen, four days later he escapes after being subjected to horrific sexual abuse. Fast-forward a quarter of a century and the trio are grown men, each living with the scars and open wounds of their past. Ex-con Jimmy (Sean Penn) runs a convenience store and has three daughters, two by his current wife Annabeth (Laura Linney) and a nineteen year old, Katie by his first wife. The scars of childhood abuse have left an indelible mark on an adult Dave (Tim Robbins) who is living a half-life, working at casual jobs, existing but not really living, flanked by his wife Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden) with whom he has trouble connecting with. At first look, Sean (Kevin Bacon) is the most successful of the three, having moved away from his old neighbourhood, he had carved out a career for himself as a homicide detective, but it soon becomes apparent that he too is a rather more complex character, his obsessive dedication to his job has driven his pregnant wife to leave town, his only contact with her being a series of silent phone calls. 

The three former friends are thrown back together when Katie is found brutally murdered in a local park. Grief riddled Jimmy turns vigilante as he engages the Savage brothers, two former underworld heavies to find the man who killed his daughter. Sean is assigned to investigate the case, and Dave descends into a self-hell, as he becomes prime suspect after on the night in question he returns home covered in blood, telling Celeste he was mugged. 

Along with his partner Whitey (Laurence Fishburne), Sean sets out to restore order and justice, and attempts to piece together the broken fragments of his childhood friendships. If it is Bacon that provides the films backbone, it is Sean Penn as Jimmy who gives Mystic River its emotional centre. Penn is mesmirising as the grief stricken father who struggles to control his inner demons when his family life is ripped apart and he finds the lure of his old life of crime and violence the only way to avenge his daughterís death. 

A remarkable mix of tortured brilliance and moody sensitivity, Penn has an intoxicatingly dangerous quality about him that his reminiscent of screen greats like Marlon Brando and James Dean. With previous roles such as convicted murderer Matthew Poncelet in Dead Man Walking (1995) and the abhorrent Emmet Ray in Woody Allenís Sweet and Lowdown (1995) (both of which earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor, his third nod coming from I Am Sam in 2000, where he played a mentally challenged adult battling for custody of his daughter), Penn has proved that in this type of role, as the dark brooding troubled soul who rides a very fine line between lawbreaker and law abider he has found his cinematic home.

Both Laura Linney and Marcia Gay Harden turn in stellar supporting performances as Jimmy and Daveís spouses. But above all it is Tim Robbins who stands head and shoulders above the ensemble cast. He turns in a simply brilliant performance as the tragic Dave, who is emotionally crippled beyond repair, giving us a powerfully lacerating portrayal of a man trapped in a living hell. Dave may have recovered physically, married and had a child, but in his head he hasnít moved past those four days where he was held hostage and abused. Dave may be living and breathing, but his heart and soul are locked in a circle of pain from which there seems to be no escape. 

Celeste tiptoes around her husband, their relationship hanging on by little more than a thread. Her faith and trust in her husband is severely tested when Daveís alibi for the night of Katieís murder begins to fall apart. She confides her fears to Jimmy, admitting that she suspects her husband murdered Katie, and unwittingly sets off a tragic chain of events which climaxes when Jimmy confronts Dave outside a bar on the docks of Mystic River in one of the films most powerful scenes. 

In an interview about his writing Dennis Lehane subscribes to the idea that ďany incident reverberates, anything that happens in your life. The smallest thing. So if the smallest thing reverberates, then the biggest thing has a consequenceĒ, and says of Mystic River that ďItís a book about the past, itís about the tug of the pastĒ. Under Clint Eastwood's patient direction Mystic River poses questions about love, loyalty, friendship and family, vengeance and blood lust, forcing Jimmy, Sean and Dave to face up to the evil within both themselves and the world around them. 

Mystic River isnít an easy film to watch, it is emotionally claustrophobic with a psychologically dense narrative that at times slows the progression of the plot. But ultimately it is a satisfying film that intelligently explores the transition between past and present, good and evil, childhood and adulthood and makes a powerful statement about the dark side of human nature and how we ultimately have little control over our fate and destiny. Reaching a powerful unsettling conclusion, Mystic River ties enough of the loose ends together to bring the story to a powerful unsettling conclusion, but also leaves just enough questions unanswered to make the ending chillingly ambiguous.

Emma Dixon
 
 
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