Like a Force of Nature

There is a sense in Clint Eastwood's Mystic River that things are going to happen no matter what anybody does - that we are carried along by events rather than having any actual control over them.

The film opens on three boyhood friends playing in the street, getting into the sort of trouble kids do. A car drives up, a man gets out and yells at them like a policeman, and gives a ride to the boy who doesn't live on that street. The two other boys watch the car drive away, knowing on some level something is wrong, but unable to do anything.

We join up with these three boys as adults. Dave was the kidnapped one, and he escaped a few days later, but the experience has altered him, and everyone knows it - we find him married with a boy of his own, dutiful, attentive, but subdued. Jimmy grows up into a small-time hood, does a short time in prison, settles down, raises his three daughters, and runs a corner store. Sean becomes a cop, estranged from his wife, who calls him regularly and hanging on the line without speaking while he tries to conduct a one-sided conversation.

The action picks up with the murder of Jimmy's oldest daughter. This throws together these three for the first time since they were children. The circumstances smooth over the awkwardness of people who've drifted apart at first, but the film builds from there, playing on an uneasiness behind them all.

On the surface, the business of the film is in finding out what's happened to Jimmy's daughter, but actually the focus is on the characters. There is an air of a Shakespearian tragedy here, of events set forward inexorably from the past. We culminate in a scenario that can be seen coming from far away, but like those two boys at the start of the film, we can only watch.

The acting is fairly amazing. Sean Penn is deservedly getting Oscar buzz as Jimmy, showing a complexity in that character we rarely see. Tim Robbins gives a careful, restrained touch to the tricky job of inhabiting the distantly disturbing Dave. And Kevin Bacon has a more straight-on role of Sean, but plays him such that we might forget he's been all over the screen the last umpteen years.

Brian Helgeland, who also adapted the wonderful L.A. Confidential, also adapts this script from the Dennis Lehane novel. Much of the credit for Mystic River goes to him and Eastwood, hitting all the right notes in the right places. There is a patience in the presentation and pacing in this film - perhaps a challenge to the audience, but one that should be met head on. The rewards are quite worth it here.

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Review: Watered down. star6/10 mastadonfarm

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