Brian Helgeland’s screenplay for Mystic River hews closely to the popular page-turner of a novel by Dennis Lehane, a dark story set in working-class Boston. Beginning with a childhood loss of innocence, it follows the repercussions into the following generation, one crime leading to another with the inevitability of Greek tragedy, victims becoming perpetrators, vigilantism turning on itself, violence begetting violence in a crescendo of anguished miseries and ironically ambiguous (and not so ambiguous) morality. Don’t expect comic relief.
In the opening scene, director Clint Eastwood shows three young friends playing street-hockey. Jimmy is quickly established as mischievous to the point of blithe willingness to ignore the law. Dave and Sean are more wary, but seem to follow Jimmy’s leadership. Jimmy and Sean stand away and offer no resistance, watching as Dave is bullied into a car and abducted by two men who turn out to be pedophiles. Dave escapes, but returns to the neighborhood marked as "damaged goods."
From that prelude, the story jumps 25 years to the present. Jimmy (Sean Penn) had been on the wrong side of the law; while he was serving time in prison his wife died. On release, he straightened out to take care of his daughter, Kate, now a beautiful young woman. When Kate is the victim of a brutal murder, Jimmy’s grief is expressed in fury; he swears vengeance on the killer, deploying his thug colleagues to gather information. Sean (Kevin Bacon) has become a state homicide officer and is assigned to the case. Dave (Tim Robbins) is still in the neighborhood, too, married to Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden) and father to a young son. Dave is troubled by the abuse he suffered as a boy, a trauma that he keeps buried within himself.
Mystic River adeptly juggles the intersecting story lines of the three principals–the police procedural centered on Sean, the history and vengeance of Jimmy, and the tortured, schizoid pressures still gnawing at Dave. Penn’s role is the kind at which he does best–cool and calculating on the outside, strong emotion kept under pressure until it spews forth like a geyser reaching its blowing point.
Robbins’ has a more difficult challenge, to show the internalized damage to Dave and his gradual capitulation to his demons. He seems to grow older as the film progresses, sad eyes sinking into a tired, fleshy face. Harden’s performance as Celeste, the loyal wife who is forced to consider dreadful possibilities about the man she loves, is a heartbreaking portrait of a progressive emotional disintegration, worthy of another Academy award. Laura Linney, as Jimmy’s loyal and steely wife, plays against type in yet another skilled portrayal.
Eastwood weaves the story lines with clarity and draws telling performances from his entire cast; he has a way of catching the unspoken thoughts that linger between the articulated lines of dialogue. Visually, he achieves a strong sense of place in this Boston neighborhood of frame triplexes where extended families live side-by-side, where memories are long and everyone seems to know a lot about everyone else’s business, except for the occasional deeply kept secret.
If Eastwood fails to provide a sense of people struggling to stay this side of an economic abyss (which added a significant level of meaning to the book), perhaps that’s too mundane a consideration when the intention is high tragedy, an intention confirmed by the pretentious soundtrack, credited to Eastwood, who seems not to trust the power of the drama that he has achieved so effectively on screen. He unnecessarily underscores his climactic moments with heavy-handed swells of orchestral accompaniment. (It’s a similar miscalculation to that made last year in the otherwise fine drama, The Hours.)
By any measure, though, Mystic River is riveting moviemaking in the popular vein. Eastwood avoids easy answers and sentimental compromises, mastering a many-leveled scenario both in terms of narrative momentum and thoughtful exploration of sweeping themes.