In one of the most provocative and disturbing scenes of his five-film Dirty Harry cop series, actor Clint Eastwood stands atop a child abductor and steps on the slimeball’s bullet-fractured leg to extract information as to the whereabouts and welfare of a missing young girl. As the director of the powerful and haunting Mystic River, Eastwood returns to the crime scenes and aftermath of both abduction and murder with a narrative muscle rarely flexed in current American films. One of Hollywood’s most prominent statesmen associated with raw violence has stepped behind the camera to expose and deeply explore its roots, tentacle-like grip on society and cancerous effects.
Mystic River begins in the early 1970s. Three kids playing street hockey in a bare-knuckle, blue-collar section of Boston lose their ball in a sewer drain. The hard case of the trio, Jimmy Markum, is immediately bored and suggests they steal a car for a joy ride. His pals Sean Devine and Davey Boyle are not enamored with the idea so they settle for writing their names in a fresh patch of sidewalk concrete. Two men pull up in a car. One man brandishes a badge and handcuffs. He chastises the boys for vandalizing municipal property, forces Davey into the auto and drives away.
Twenty-five years later we are reintroduced to the now-estranged friends. Dave (Tim Robbins) is a family man still emotionally reeling from the four days of sexual abuse he survived during his kidnapping. Jimmy (Sean Penn) is an ex-con and sort of street-element patriarch who runs a corner grocery store. Sean (Kevin Bacon) is a homicide detective with marital problems and the only trio member to move out of the old neighborhood. The men are reunited when Jimmy’s 19-year-old daughter is murdered. Sean and his African American partner Whitey Powers (Laurence Fishburne) are assigned to the case. Jimmy wants revenge and works the case outside the law with help from the greasy, jackal-like Savage brothers. And Dave is soon identified as a suspect.
The script by Brian Helgeland, an Oscar winner for 1997’s L.A. Confidential, is based on Dennis Lehane’s psychologically dense novel. Helgeland has managed to keep this complex story about fractured friendships, loyalty, sinister acts, moral ambiguity and inner demons both coherent and compelling. The characters feel fleshed out, the spotty humor feels organic, and the tragic, dramatic, police procedural and thriller elements of the material are seamlessly interwoven.
Eastwood is a longtime jazz aficionado and pianist and credited here with the musical score. Like our most talented musicians, he understands that the space between notes is just as important as the purity of the notes themselves. He masterfully gives the story and characters their proper amount of breathing room and translates the script into fluid, fertile visual passages dripping with heart, heartache, passion, compassion and rage.
Eastwood also does an excellent job establishing a feel for what it must be like to live in the East Buckingham neighborhood where the film begins. He uses aerial shots to potent effect (the scene from above as Jimmy wrestles with police near his daughter’s body is an absolute stunner). And he paints a lucid picture of a world where murder is sanctioned as the divine right of self-made royalty and people do not know even their closest loved ones as well as they may believe.
The cast is sure to ring up some Oscar nominations alongside Eastwood. Penn is a pitch-perfect time bomb of testosterone and emotion who, as Whitey puts it, “is in for a world of hurt.” Robbins personifies physical and emotional defeat in a constant state of hunched sadness and vulnerability. Bacon and Fishburne complement each other as contemporary Dragnet investigators. And Marcia Gay Harden as Dave’s spooked wife and Laura Linney as Jimmy’s domestic anchor are also given time to stretch.
Mystic River cautions us about the safety of the very street on which we live. It talks about people so traumatized by their past that they are living in a world that no one else knows and have no hope for the future. And most of all, it’s about childhood that never gets a chance to blossom. “Sometimes I feel like all three of us got into the car that day,” says Sean midway into the film. And it’s that echo that Eastwood also wants us to hear, feel and feed into our own lives.