Based on a novel by Dennis Lehane, Mystic River follows the lives of Jimmy (Sean Penn), Dave (Tim Robbins) and Sean (Kevin Bacon), who are long-standing friends with a dark childhood memory. They are reunited when reformed convict Jimmy’s daughter is found beaten and killed in a local park. At first Jimmy wallows in the devastation of losing his only child, but it is not long before suspicion is stirred by the investigations of his old-school cronies, and suspicion about Dave’s involvement in the murder clouds his mind and tests his resolve. What ensues is a powerful drama that may not be Clint Eastwood’s finest work, but it is a sure fire example of his ability not only direct to the highest level, but also to create a moving, compelling and thought-provoking drama.
Now, a few years ago I probably would have called this my favourite film and cited its flawless plotline and cast. Having re-watched the film a further two times, I am going to have to retract half of that statement. However, the half that I will stand by is the fact that this film is worth seeing simply for the absolutely stellar performances from the three leads. While Robbins and Bacon make it difficult to decide who takes the biscuit for the best acting of the three, Sean Penn arguably puts in his greatest ever performance (one to rival his later leading role in Milk, at least), managing to portray love, devastation and desperation to the most shattering effect.
In one of the few films that he directs but does not appear, Eastwood takes us through an emotional roller coaster from the first scene. Set when the trio were still very young, we are barely given enough time to open our first beer before we are watching parents panic as they realise that the guy that forced Dave into the back of his car with the creepy looking elderly guy in the front is NOT, in fact, a police officer. You cannot blame the kids for their naivety of course, but it does open the film on a fitting note of avoidable disaster.
Sean Penn goes on to portray the adult Jimmy as a protective father that could give Robert De Niro a run for his money. However, it is when the second disaster happens that the film flexes the dramatic muscles of its all-star cast. Penn’s heart wrenching reaction to his daughter’s body being daughter being discovered is Oscar-worthy in itself in my opinion.
Robbins may have been directed to all but beg the audience to suspect him with his stuttering excuses for the blood that covers his clothes and his car, yet as the story unravels this apparent over-acting begins to make sense, and his puppy eyes gather new meaning. Kevin Bacon does well to show his versatility as an actor, working as the detective with a disappointingly half-hearted back-story surrounding his estranged wife.
His sidekick, Laurence Fishburne fits into his role nicely, yet admittedly he might have trouble preventing viewers from screaming ‘hey, that’s the guy from the Matrix!’ every time he appears with sunglasses on. It would be unfair not to also mention praise-worthy performances from Marcia Gay Harden as Dave’s wife, torn between her loyalty to her husband and her rapidly diminishing trust, and Thomas Guiry’s depiction of Brendan Harris, Katie’s nervous yet convincing boyfriend that spends a lot of time fending off cynicism and suspicion from both Jimmy and the detectives.
Now, the pothole, the missing piece of the puzzle of classic crime thrillers: the ending. Of course, this is not Eastwood’s fault as it is derived from the novel, but it isn’t even handled in a way that I can call particularly satisfactory. All of the work that the actors did to build up such a mystery unravels into a rather unbelievable climax. I will not spoil anything, and while I grant Robbins and Penn credit for their final scene together to some extent, I will say that of all of the brilliance of the beginning and middle of this film, the ending is extremely frustrating and eventually just seems to peter out into the blackness of the credits. Beyond spoiling the film for you entirely, that is all I can say on the matter. And no, it wasn’t all a dream.
A film that boasts one of the best combined acting efforts of the 21st century, and that holds a solid plot right up until the last twenty minutes or so. It is frustrating to have had to crack open that second beer so late, but give credit where credit is due to a solid murder mystery with more to it that a lot of the other contemporary films in its genre.
Take a Drink: every time Dave says/does something suspicious
Do a Shot: every time you think it’s Morpheus consulting Kevin Bacon.
Do a Shot: every time Sean Penn smiles (I hope that you enjoy sobriety)