Eastwood triumphs with 'River'

by John Kim | 10/21/03 5:00am

"Mystic River" is easily Clint Eastwood's finest work since he released his seminal anti-Western "Unforgiven" 11 years ago. Once again, he takes a genre that has been done countless times before (the whodunit, in this case) and turns it on its head to create something of startling depth that goes well beyond the genre's conventions. It's hard to imagine how anyone could have watched "Unforgiven" and still doubted Eastwood's place behind a camera. However, if these skeptics do exist, then "Mystic River" will be the film to silence these critics once and for all.

Jimmy (Sean Penn), Dave (Tim Robbins) and Sean (Kevin Bacon) are three friends forever linked by a tragedy that befell Dave 25 years ago. Having drifted apart, they find their destinies intertwined once again when Jimmy's daughter Katie is found brutally murdered. Sean, now a straight-laced cop, is given the dual assignment of solving the case and keeping the vengeful Jimmy at bay, while married father Dave finds himself implicated in Katie's death when his alibi refuses to hold up.

The circumstances are volatile, tragedy is inevitable, and in the end, the only thing "Mystic River" is willing to tell you about the previous 140 minutes is that even as the years elapse, the sins of the past can never be wiped clean.

Eastwood's direction is characteristically economical, lacking the excess that marks the work of many of his fellow lensmen. Sadly, some will dismiss the direction as "simplistic," when in reality, Eastwood should be commended for his unshakable belief in his own sensibilities, preferring to let the story find its own pace instead of forcing the issue. There is one particular bit of foreshadowing right before the climactic scene that is so carefully crafted and expertly timed that audience members actually gasped. Eastwood is wise enough to know that sometimes less is more.

With one of the most talented ensemble casts in recent memory and Eastwood's reputation as the consummate actor's director, "Mystic River" would seem to represent a sort of cinematic serendipity. Sean Penn responds with a particularly bravura performance as Jimmy. Penn's effectiveness as an actor comes from the fact that, unlike an actor like Johnny Depp, you are not predisposed to like him. Penn is unburdened by audience expectations, and this allows him to wear the ambiguity of his character like an Armani suit.

Marcia Gay Harden also deserves praise for her work as Celeste, Dave's long-suffering wife, as we see in her mannerisms both the fear stemming from her suspicion and the guilt she feels for even being suspicious at all. Her desperation becomes progressively more painful to watch, and one becomes increasingly aware that once she finally loses her nerve, it will have disastrous consequences for all involved.

Truthfully, though, while the cast looks impressive on paper, the end result is less than the sum of its parts. Laurence Fishburne is given little to do other than look skeptical, and Laura Linney, dazzling in "The Truman Show" and "You Can Count on Me," is especially wasted. She appears in a few early scenes as the grieving mother, and is MIA for the rest of the film, resurfacing only at the end to give a Lady Macbeth-type speech so ridiculously out of place that one wonders if Linney realized that she was in "Mystic River" and not "Rocky III."

Indeed, this movie is seamless until the end, when it nearly crumbles under its own weight. The entire final act meanders pointlessly, and offers nothing in the way of insight. Ambiguity is not necessarily a flaw, but the problem with the conclusion is that it is ambiguous in its ambiguity. There is a tremendous difference between letting the audience come to its own conclusions and trying to lead the audience to a certain conclusion and confusing them along the way. Unfortunately, "Mystic River" leans towards the latter.

That's the only glaring misstep, however, in an otherwise great film. The word "potent" is thrown around recklessly by thesaurus-happy critics, but "Mystic River" is one of the few movies that actually deserves the distinction. It's a remarkable piece of filmmaking by a man in complete command of his craft, and while Eastwood may have reached icon status as an actor, one comes to realize that even if he had never been in "Dirty Harry" or the Leone westerns or any movie at all, he would have made a pretty damn good career for himself, regardless.