Just as Clint Eastwood's directorial skills seemed to be waning, he makes a dream comeback with "Mystic River". It is exactly the kind of thing Eastwood needed to keep his career from sliding into "life achievement", cheap-thriller bound territory. For the first time since "Unforgiven" more than ten years ago, he has finally made a fully realized film: "Mystic River" is a bleak, wrenching drama that encompasses the inevitability and pathos of a tragedy.
The film opens with a trio of boys playing baseball in a town just outside Boston. The three find a patch of wet cement and begin to carve their names into it, but are caught. Two men who are seemingy cops reprimand the kids for desecrating "municipal property" and order one of them to get in the car. It's obvious that something is wrong; the car the men arrived in is in no way a police car. The boy is taken away nevertheless.
Decades later, the three boys have grown up: Dave Boyle (Tim Robbins) now has a wife (Celeste, played by Marcia Gay Harden) and son. Sean Divine (Kevin Bacon) is a detective, working with his partner Whitey Powers (Laurence Fishburne). His wife inexplicably separated him and calls him without saying a word. Then there is Jimmy Markum: he is also married (to Annabeth Markham, played by Laura Linney) with a daughter (Katie Markham, played by Emmy Rossum). However, over those decades not seen in the film, Markum has gained notoriety for a life as something of a crime boss. He has since reformed, but he considers going back to that life when the unthinkable happens: his daughter is murdered.
"Mystic River" retains a dark, coldly methodical feel throughout its entirety. The narrative structure is such that once the murder occurs, it begins to turn on itself and stall. This sounds like a grave weakness, but this is a conscious decision Eastwood makes for the better. This slow, crawling mood is agonizing, forcing each of the characters slowly rot in their grief. It keeps this going until the very end, but long before the film is over the audience realizes that there is no way anyone will come out of this a better person than they were before.
However, this feel is burdened by one major handicap. A very important area of the film strays from the main point in a huge way. By trying to play up the unimportant mystery aspect of the film, it briefly turns into a cheap whodunit. The police investigation itself is, for the most part, tastefully handled, focusing more on the detective's relationships to all involved than the case itself. But unfortunately, "River" plays games with one of its major players (Did he do it? Is he guilty?). Much more power could have been derived if there was no question as to the innocence of the character in question; if the viewer was allowed to see the desperation of the characters without trying to figure everything out.
This is a minor complaint when one considers how powerful most of the excellent ensemble is. Some suffer from mild fake accent syndrome, but that's hardly distracting. The performances in "Mystic River" are uniformly heartbreaking. Each actor (with the exception of Laura Linney, who I think does her worst work by far in this film) carries a restraint and quiet intensity that is unsettling (and in some scenes, downright scary).
I hope that "Mystic River" is the kind of thing that we continue to s