Rated R - Running Time: 2:17 - Released 10/15/03

It seems that many films directed by Clint Eastwood bear the theme of justifying violent crimes or exonerating notorious killers. Of all the movies I’ve seen of his in the last 10 years (Unforgiven, Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil, True Crime, Space Cowboys, and Blood Work), all but one (Cowboys) involved a killer being revealed as innocent or a crime being seen as a necessary evil. This is an interesting pattern: is Eastwood trying to tell us something? Maybe he is trying to soften us up before admitting that, in his youth, he really did shoot some unlucky punk for a fistful of dollars, or escape from Alcatraz in any which way he could, or use magnum force against some high plains drifter before implementing the Eiger sanction on his sorry butt. Or who knows, maybe he’s just trying to get us to excuse him for his bad movies.

For the record, Mystic River isn’t one of Eastwood’s bad movies. But it does seem to follow the pattern. Based on the novel by Dennis Lehane, adapted for the screen by Brian Helgeland, and starring Sean Penn, Kevin Bacon, and Tim Robbins, it tells the story of a trio of childhood best friends from Boston who reunite as adults after having gone their separate ways, because they are all involved in a murder case. The excellent work of all three of these actors is complemented by several others in supporting roles, including Laurence Fishburne (taking a break from Matrix madness), Marcia Gay Harden, and Laura Linney. Eastwood’s direction is appropriately ominous, with most of the action taking place at night and in dark, dirty, rundown sections of Boston’s Buckingham Flats area, all of which lends an overwhelming sense of despair, which is the overriding theme of the plot.

After a short prologue in which the three boys’ 1960s street hockey game is interrupted by a couple of shady middle-aged men who kidnap one of them and spend a couple of days sexually abusing him before he finally escapes, we move to the present. All three still live in Boston, but they seldom see each other anymore. Jimmy (Penn), the most delinquent of the three, has become a sort of low-level crime boss who stays mainly straight since the births of his three daughters, and operates a convenience store for legitimacy while controlling the neighborhood through the use of armed thugs (Kevin Chapman, Adam Nelson) who used to be his partners in crime. Sean (Bacon) is a respected detective for the Massachusetts State Police, and Dave (Robbins), the one who was abused as a child, has predictably become a troubled alcoholic with multiple psychological disorders resulting from his harrowing experience all those years ago.

These men are all reunited when Jimmy’s 19-year-old daughter Katie (Emily Rossum) is brutally murdered and Sean is assigned to the case, along with his partner Whitey (Fishburne). Although there is at first no sign of the killer, a few leads do materialize, and Sean and Whitey are soon in a race against Jimmy’s goons to discover who did it. The two prime suspects are Katie’s boyfriend, whom Jimmy never liked (Tom Guiry), and good old Dave, who saw Katie at a bar the night she died and then came home to his wife (Harden) covered in someone else’s blood. Like I’ve told my kids a million times, when you’re a known alcoholic and psychological deviant, it’s always a good idea to wash off the other people’s blood before coming home at night. I learned that the hard way.

This movie is one of those about testing the strengths of innocent childhood friendships after the innocent children have grown into guilty, evil, psychotic adults. The acting is superb—Penn is like a young Robert DeNiro; after his engaging turn in I Am Sam, he returns to the more comfortable territory of the well-respected tough guy, but imbues him with a kind of simmering passion, a gut-wrenching, inward torture created by the death of his favorite daughter. Bacon is equally comfortable in the straight-arrow role, although there is a sub-plot involving his estranged wife that is so underdeveloped it seems tacked on to make him more interesting. And Robbins is excellent as the former child abuse victim—confused, drunk, pathetic, at a loss for what happened to his childhood personality on that fateful day.

But in keeping with Eastwood’s tradition, the film is also about what one might call “justified crime,” where the innocent are punished, the guilty go free, and we are supposed to cheer. I made an agreement with myself many years ago to assess movies based on their artistic merit, not on their subject matter, because I knew that some of the best movies in American history have involved evil which is seen as good, portrayed criminals in a favorable light, or at the very least been terribly violent. For this reason, I have to say this is a good movie. It’s well done, a cinematic triumph of drama and storytelling. But I guess I’m getting too old to get behind this kind of antihero worship anymore. I can admit it’s a well-made film, but that doesn’t mean I approve. ****

Copyright 2003 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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