It’s fitting that Clint Eastwood’s somber, elegiac “Mystic River” is as quiet as it is, being replete with characters who cannot communicate.
This is literal in some cases, as with young Silent Ray, who is mute, and with the estranged wife of a police detective who calls her husband every day but refuses to say anything. But even among the characters who can and do speak, their communication is limited. The male characters, all manly to the core, don’t say how they feel, of course, and their women are afraid to. The character list is a roster of souls whose wounds have caused them to draw inward.
Based on Dennis Lehane’s novel and adapted by Brian Helgeland (“A Knight’s Tale,” “Blood Work”), “Mystic River” examines grief in its various forms: the grief of a father for his dead daughter, the grief of a damaged man for his lost childhood, the grief of a young Romeo for his Juliet. It does this within the framework of a murder mystery, though it expands beyond the confines of that genre into something more deep and compelling.
In Boston live three men who used to be friends. Sean (Kevin Bacon) is a state police detective whose wife walked out on him. Jimmy (Sean Penn), brash and DeNiro-esque, owns a corner grocery store and is leader of a gang of low-level goons. Dave (Tim Robbins) is on the verge of a breakdown, unable to maintain normalcy after his traumatic childhood. When the three were friends in this very neighborhood, Dave was kidnapped and molested. Jimmy and Sean did not get in the strangers’ car; only by that stroke of luck did they escape Dave’s fate.
They live separate lives now, but their paths cross occasionally. Jimmy and Dave’s wives are cousins. When Dave sees Jimmy’s daughter Katie (Emmy Rossum) in a bar one Saturday night, he recognizes her. Later that night, she is killed. Dave comes home with blood on him. He tells his wife (Marcia Gay Harden) he fought off a mugger. She is terrified to believe him, but terrified not to believe him. Sean is lead detective on Katie’s murder, and thus the three friends’ lives intersect again.
The film is full of gritty, unromanticized emotion as each character faces his demons, occasionally losing to them. Sean Penn’s performance as the thuggish Jimmy is fascinating, and if Tim Robbins occasionally goes a bit too far as the tortured Dave, it doesn’t detract from the overall impact. Kevin Bacon doesn’t have as much emotional material to work with, but his performance is solid.
I don’t think the film answers all its questions satisfactorily. Dave is only given one line to explain why he did whatever it is he did (I’m not tellin’), and it’s not enough to give his character the poignancy he deserves. The motivations behind the central tragedy are also given the short shrift.
Yet the film never stops being compelling. As a murder mystery, it is passable; the interrogations and clue-finding occur about the way they normally do in these movies. But as an emotional rumination on death and its aftermath — the real point, after all, not the murder thing — it is gripping.
A- (2 hrs., 17 min.; )
In 2011, I reconsidered this movie for my "Re-Views" column at Film.com.