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Clint Eastwood’s latest film, Mystic River, is a classic murder mystery with a contemporary twist set in the gritty working-class streets of Irish South Boston. The characters too are simple people, but with complex, deeply repressed emotional lives. The film represents Eastwood in top form. He captures all the tension and mystery of the classic whodunit, while adding a complex overlayer of psychological repression, crippling emotion and contemporary social issues like child abuse.
The performances by the cast are each extraordinary in their way. Even the wives of the lead actors, whose roles are less central to the action, lend the film a great deal of its mysterious, magnetic power. Laura Linney, with perhaps the smallest role of the main characters has an extraordinary Lady Macbeth-like monologue with Sean Penn’s character in which she both goads and cajoles him into denying any sense of guilt for the crime he has committed, while at the same time exhorting him to take his rightful place as “king” of the neighborhood. She oozes both seduction and evil as she whispers sensuously and insidiously into his ear as they lie supine in their bed.
Marcia Gay Harden too has a wonderful scene in which she attempts to confront Tim Robbins, her husband, about a crime she suspects him of committing. As Robbins explains himself unconvincingly, the look of silent desperation, disbelief, and revulsion on Harden’s face is priceless and the mark of great acting.
Sean Penn, Tim Robbins and Kevin Bacon, who play boyhood pals who witness a horrifying act of kidnapping and sexual abuse, each give commanding performances.
Tim Robbins at the bar on the fateful night
Many reviewers, including Charlie Rose, noted the amazing physical and emotional transformation that Tim Robbins engineered for his character. Here a 6 foot 4 inch actor slumps his shoulders, shuffles his gait, and slows his speech to become the adult lost soul that his character is (after being abused as a small child) has become.
Penn’s character is pivotal to the action. He is a man who acts as if he’s sure of himself and everything in his world. He basks in friends and family–especially his teenage daughter–and is a mini-Godfather in his community. From his convenience store, he seems to control a small empire. But his life is actually much more complicated and full of self-doubt. His first wife died of cancer while he was in prison. He put himself there because he would not ‘rat’ on the crime’s real perpetrators. Externally, he has everything in life; internally he profoundly doubts himself and the life he has led.
Grieving Sean Penn restrained by policemen
The film’s plotting is masterfully misdirected. For part of the film, you’re led to believe that a teen aged boy committed the murder around which the major action swirls. Then suspicion falls on a lead character. It is this suspicion which traps Penn’s character into a fateful act of vengeance that wreaks profound tragedy on all the other characters.
If you have not yet seen this film, PLEASE DO NOT READ BEYOND THIS POINT as I will give away some crucial plot points.
Notwithstanding everything good about this film, there were a few plot points which I found unconvincing:
1. I could not believe that a 12-year old deaf boy could or would shoot a teenage girl with a gun.
2. I did not believe that Marcia Gay Harden’s character would essentially inform on her husband, conveying her suspicions about his guilt to the father of the murder victim (thereby ensuring her own husband’s death).
3. I did not understand the ending in which the two surviving main characters enjoy a community parade with their families. Was this Eastwood saying that they have made a pact with each other to bury the crime and move on with their lives? Is Tim Robbins’ character the sacrificial lamb whose death allows the sins of all the other characters to be forgiven? If so, this is not explained and remains too obscure for the viewer to understand.
4. Why would Kevin Bacon’s character, an upstanding State police officer, knowingly allow a guilty man to walk the streets and remain free?
5. Why, after promising one of the main characters his life if he confessed to an alleged crime would Sean Penn’s character have reneged on his promise and exacted the ultimate revenge?
Despite these plot weaknesses, I thought Mystic River was a masterful film and fully deserving of winning the Oscar.