Grief is a particularly difficult emotion to dramatize on film without lapsing into maudlin sentimentality. At their worst, Hollywood dramas about death (especially the death of a child) come across as glorified Lifetime Channel movies-of-the-week. They frequently indulge in sentimental button-pushing, in which the characters mope around and wail with tears to declare how sad they are, as if that were enough to elicit emotional resonance. Don’t get me wrong, in real life, I’m sure that the loss of a child would be an unbearably traumatic experience for any parent to ever go through. But movies are not real life. The needs of drama require something relevant or meaningful to evolve from the subject matter. Most Hollywood weepies never achieve that goal.
On the other end of the spectrum are movies like ‘Mystic River’ that focus on the anguish and rage of the experience. But even here a film runs the risk of misstepping into either melodramatic histrionics or banal revenge fantasy. It takes a storyteller with a clear vision and a sure hand to manage the delicate balancing act that such material demands.
In his career as a director, especially in these later years, Clint Eastwood has built a reputation for his intelligent, contemplative adult dramas. No doubt, he’s had his share of well-intentioned misfires among them. No filmmaker as prolific as Eastwood can bat a home run on every outing. Nevertheless, it’s nice that someone in Hollywood is still out there making movies for grown-ups. His better efforts are characterized by the director’s even-handed tone and general lack of schmaltzy sentimentality, even though so many of them are weighted by the themes of redemption, grief, and loss.
‘Mystic River’ is part mystery thriller and part revenge tale. Yet neither of those are its driving focus. Mostly, it’s a story about guilt – real and imagined, the kind we take upon ourselves and the kind we force onto others. Three young boys from a working class Boston neighborhood are bonded, and divided, by a traumatic event. For playing in the streets and being only vaguely mischievous, a police officer chastises them, sends two of them home, and drives the third away in his car. Except, he’s not a police officer. He’s a pedophile. The boy escapes after four terrible days. He’s never the same again. None of them are.
Years later, the three as adults have drifted apart but still circle around each other’s lives in the old neighborhood. Jimmy (Sean Penn) owns a corner market, and is seemingly reformed from a previous life of crime. Or at least partially reformed. Sean (Kevin Bacon) is a state police officer. Dave (Tim Robbins), the original victim, is still a shambles of a man. Although he has a wife and son, he clearly never recovered and remains perpetually haunted by that decision to get into the car. It could have been any one of the three boys on that day, and they all know it.
As if that weren’t enough tragedy for one lifetime, Jimmy’s teenage daughter (Emmy Rossum) is murdered. Brutally. Sean works the case, but Jimmy vows to find the killer and take his revenge first. Meanwhile, on the night of the girl’s disappearance, Dave came home covered in blood. He claims that he’d been attacked by a mugger, but doesn’t want to go to the police because he fears he killed the man when fighting back. His wife (Marcia Gay Harden) grows suspicious when she finds no record of this in the news over the next several days. She can’t trust her husband. Even he admits that he can’t trust his own mind anymore.
If the solution to this mystery seems clear-cut, it’s anything but. ‘Mystic River’ is a complex, emotionally wrenching tragedy. Based on a novel by Dennis Lehane and adapted by Brian Helgeland (‘L.A. Confidential’), the film features multi-faceted characters and a densely-layered, literary narrative. Far from a typical sob story or revenge thriller, this is a film that tries to break through the trite clichés about loss, and instead examine our human tendency to misplace anger and guilt on those who may not deserve it.
While Eastwood doesn’t act in this one himself, the rest of the cast is superb. Both Sean Penn and Tim Robbins won Oscars for their roles. However you may feel about Robbins as a loudmouth political activist in his spare time, his deeply internalized performance here as a shattered man is incredibly affecting. I’m a little less sold on Penn, who veers a bit over-the-top once too often. He’s fine, even excellent, in much of the movie, but his emoting in some key scenes is obvious Oscar baiting. He’s done better work in other pictures. This didn’t bother me as much as some of the film’s harsher critics, and I don’t believe that it ever derails the movie, but I also wasn’t as impressed by it as the Academy obviously was. Even so, the movie has a huge cast of A-list talent, almost all working at the top of their games.
Eastwood deftly navigates the story with a restrained and spare style that draws out the emotional power of the material. He also has a keen eye for authentic local color. I’m not sure that I’d call ‘Mystic River’ the best film he’s directed, but it easily ranks among them.