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Most movies these days seem to live and breathe by a gimmick. It seems as if there always has to be some new conceit, whether it’s the effects, the characters, action sequences, or a twist within the story. In 2003’s Mystic River, brilliantly directed by Clint Eastwood, he knew he had a great story and cast, and that was all he needed.
He opens the movie with an unsettling prelude, showing our central cast as a close group of childhood friends. One of these friends, Dave, ends up abducted by someone posing as a cop. Four days later, he escapes after enduring unspecified, but obviously horrific abuse, and it is this chapter of this life that will forever define who he is.
Cut to the present, and these three still know each other, but they are no longer the tight-knit group they once were. Dave, now played by Tim Robbins, is a father himself, but one who is obviously haunted by the demons of those four days. His friends, Jimmy and Sean, now played by Sean Penn and Kevin Bacon, are living their own lives, Jimmy as the owner of a local store and Sean as a cop. Through a series of unknown events, Jimmy’s 19-year old daughter ends up murdered the same night Dave comes home covered in blood, claiming to have killed a mugger. Is it coincidence or is he the killer?
On paper, this is a relatively straightforward murder mystery, but there is a power to this story unusual for the genre. Jimmy’s grief over the loss of his daughter is palpable. Penn’s acting is so intense that you genuinely feel devastated over the loss of his beloved girl. When he decides that the cops assigned to the case (including Sean) aren’t doing enough in their investigation, he begins his own detective work, and you completely believe in his tactics. Of course, things end up spiraling out of control, but the desperation behind every act makes it all believable.
As the film progresses, the audience is able to start piecing the puzzle together. There are no shocking twists, and the story itself is rather straightforward. What makes this film unique are the nuances of the characters. Dave’s abduction is the dark cloud hanging over the proceedings and the fact that they used to be friends adds an element of depth to everything that is happening. Eastwood describes the film as being like a Greek tragedy, and that seems about right. He views the film as the “unraveling of a mystery that goes back generations,” and yet at the same time, evolves to an unbelievably intense finale, one completely of the present. The central mystery doesn’t end up taking much time out of their lives, and yet the story feels epic.
Every character is crucial in a story like this, and every actor does a phenomenal job. Even those with limited screen time make the most out of their performance. There isn’t a false note within the film. Laurence Fishburn, Marcia Gay Harden and Laura Linney all do stupendous work, shaping their performances to create memorable characters of consequence.
Warner Bros. has released a terrific Blu-Ray of this film. Extras include “Mystic River: Beneath the Surface” a 23-minute documentary featuring current interviews with the cast, Eastwood, Brian Helgeland (the screenwriter), and Dennis Lehane (the novelist who wrote the book on which the film is based). This is one of those features that is kind of dry, but fascinating at the same time. It simply consists of people talking to the camera, reminiscing and ruminating on the film. There is no flash in this feature, but there is a lot of substance.
There is also a feature that runs just over 11 minutes called “From Page to Screen.” This was originally a special for Bravo, and doesn’t feel all that different from the “Beneath the Surface” feature. It’s just more interviews and clips. However, my favorite extras were the Charlie Rose Show interviews. Featuring interviews with Clint Eastwood, Tim Robbins, and Kevin Bacon, Rose does a great job just conversing with these fascinating people. There are times where these types of interviews feel as much like a commercial as anything, but these particular interviews are simply conversation. Sitting in front of a black set with no fancy graphics or eye-catching camera moves, they sit and discuss their life’s work, not just the film. These segments provide fascinating insight into these brilliant actors and directors, and I loved watching them. Rounding out the extras are the teaser trailer and the full preview.
Eastwood states that he shoots his movies by “treating every scene like it’s the most important scene in the picture.” This dedication has almost always served him well, but it really comes across here. Almost every moment is both crucial to the film as a whole, as well as serving as a fascinating stand-alone moment. There is no wasted time in this film. It’s a masterful script, turned into a brilliant movie. Both Sean Penn and Tim Robbins deservedly won Oscars for their performances, and the film got nominations for Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, and Supporting Actress (for Marcia Gay Harden). This is a remarkable film, and one that deserves every accolade it received. Having directed several brilliant films, I would still consider Mystic River his masterpiece.