Clint Eastwood's latest imbues grim life in a poor Boston neighbourhood with the relentlessness of classical tragedy


Mystic River

Directed by Clint Eastwood
Written by Brian Helgeland
Starring Sean Penn, Tim Robbins and Kevin Bacon
Classification: 14A
Rating: ***

The repercussions of a boy's sexual abduction resonate through the decades in Clint Eastwood's artful, punishing new drama, Mystic River, a story that unfolds with the inevitability and awfulness of a Greek tragedy. God, here, does not forgive, but "calls in his marker" like a merciless neighbourhood loan shark claiming interest on debts that are owed.

In the opening shot, the camera descends into a wood-frame and brick home in a Boston working-class neighbourhood where three boys of 10 or 11 are playing ball hockey on the street. When their ball drops into a sewer, the event is both banal and a metaphor for their fall from innocence.

Looking for a new diversion, the boys decide to write their names in wet sidewalk cement: First, Jimmy and Sean write their names, but as Dave has finished only the first two letters, a long dark car pulls up beside them.

There are two men inside; an angry middle-aged man, apparently an out-of-uniform cop, steps out and demands to know what the boys are doing. He asks where their homes are. Dave lives a few streets over, so he orders him into the back of the car. The man in the passenger's seat turns and we briefly glimpse a priest's ring, with a crucifix on it, before the first of a series of blackout transitions that punctuate the film.

Though the neighbourhood setting is Catholic, this is not a universe where forgiveness and love can redeem the characters from sin. This is a place where family and friends are under a curse, doomed to follow apparently pre-ordained patterns of violence and suffering.

Mystic River is classic in another sense. Eastwood's minimalist filmmaking owes its allegiance to traditional Hollywood transparency, stripped down to a kind of Zen conciseness. From camera placement to editing, the film conveys the sense of elemental necessity, without waste or flourish.

Each of the overhead shots either has a logical reason (police helicopter) or is used to lend overview to a dramatic moment: a father's anguished scream; a dress laid atop a girl's corpse on an undertaker's table. There are a couple of subjective flashbacks, the adult Dave's fragmentary memories of his confinement and escape. Everything else happens on the human level of crisply photographed, unglamorous reality, accompanied by a sombre musical score (also written by Eastwood).

Twenty-five years after that first encounter, we meet the three boys again. Sean (Kevin Bacon) has become a homicide detective, working with a skeptical partner known as Whitey Powers (Laurence Fishburne), the one character who stands outside the neighbourhood and its web of loyalties and secrets. Sean is grieving for his wife, who has left him. Jimmy (Sean Penn), an ex-con, and father of three daughters, runs a corner grocery store and is married to Annabeth (Laura Linney). Dave (Tim Robbins) is married to Annabeth's cousin, Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden) and has a son.

Almost immediately, we move into a second, even grimmer tragedy -- Katie (Emmy Rossum), Jimmy's 19-year-old daughter from a previous marriage, is found murdered. On the same night she is killed, Dave arrives at his home late, drunk, upset, with a cut hand and blood on his clothes. He tells his wife a confused story about an encounter with a mugger.

Along with the blackouts -- representative of the memory gaps, evasions and blank spots in each of the characters' lives -- Eastwood shows a distinct fascination with parallels and opposites. Twice more in the film, Dave is obliged to climb into the backs of cars. Jimmy's criminal in-laws have the surname Savage. They are represented by look-alike goon brothers, with the bodies of fireplugs, matching facial hair and leather jackets. The two women cousins, Annabeth and Celeste, have different ways of supporting their husbands. While the detectives are conducting their interviews around the neighbourhood, the Savage brothers, under Jimmy's direction, are staging a parallel investigation.

More than once, Eastwood crosscuts his narrative between two sequences: a first communion in a church, and the gathering at a crime scene. The movie's conclusion sees two separate story strands reaching a simultaneous conclusion. Not all of this is completely persuasive. Emotional peaks and revelations are loaded into the last third of the film, where the intricate connections between events feel piled on and over-determined. Noticeably out of place is a late speech by Annabeth, which suggests Linney would make an excellent Lady Macbeth, but is strangely grandiloquent for a Boston woman from the wrong side of the river.

Otherwise, the acting throughout is exceptional, rooted in observed realism, but suggestive of more mythical agents at work through the lives of human beings. At the centre of the film are two very large performances: One is Robbins's Dave as a confused misfit, haunted by inhuman images of vampires and wolves, by turns shambling and passive, and snarling with self-hate.

His opposite is the man of action, Jimmy, with Penn offering a larger-than-life, tragically anguished performance, this year's leading candidate for an Oscar win. Jimmy is a man who knows "in his heart" that he is somehow responsible for his daughter's death. Though not literally blind like Oedipus, he dons a pair of sunglasses in the movie's final scene, at a community parade where the cast of characters assemble on the sidewalks, as if for a theatrical encore. On the other side of the street, Jimmy's old friend, Sean, the policeman, cocks a finger at him like a gun.

At the Cannes Film Festival, where Mystic River had its premiere, the actors said Eastwood was noncommittal about the meaning of the pointed finger. In the context of the film, the message seems clear enough: "Look in your heart," or as the Oracle said, "Know thyself."

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