Deeply nuanced performances breathe reality into the film’s somewhat tried plot devices, and ultimately overshadow a director’s visible manipulation and a studio’s heavy handed marketing to deliver an intensely satisfying film.
I missed the release of Mystic River in theaters last year, primarily as a direct result of the pretentious marketing, which seemed to be aimed solely at the Academy and the Foreign Press Association, rather than the majority of the viewing public. The campaign worked, landing the film with accolades and Oscars. That alone solidified my predisposition to dislike the film, or more over write it off completely. I don’t like being told by the first stream of advertisements that roll out of a studio how well their film was reviewed. It would be like throwing an ad out there that proclaimed, “The number 1 movie in America is…” two weeks before it’s released. Let my peers and I have a chance at it before being throttled with Oscar buzz. It just bothers me. Ray is this year’s Mystic River for me. I’m just annoyed that the collective have decided for me that Jamie Foxx’s performance is “dynamite.”
That said, I knew from my time in the studios and corridors here in Hollywood that I was being dismissive of “probably Eastwood’s best work since Unforgiven.” After a few weeks in release, most of my peers had seen and liked Mystic River. It became part of the collective conscious, and an almost embarrassment to not have seen it. So I nodded in those halls and on those sets, and said the requisite, “Yeah, Sean Penn was incredible…I can’t believe the performance he pulled from Laura Linney…”
Time passed and the film was overtaken by the incessant Onslaught of the New. Only yesterday I was walking through a major video store chain when I saw the film for sale as a Previously Viewed DVD for $5. It seemed so long ago that I first even thought of the film with the ridiculously unimaginative and ineffectual title. So, I bought it, and watched it free of the prejudice and distaste I had from a full year prior:
Mystic River is primarily the story of three men who have collectively experienced a trauma in their childhood. Technically, just one, Davie (Tim Robbins), actually experienced the ordeal. Sean and Jimmy (Kevin Bacon and Sean Penn) witnessed a piece of it, and often reflect how their lives might be different had that moment in their past been different. This incident in their collective past proves to be the tie that binds old friends. As adults, Sean is a cop, Jimmy owns the corner store, and Davie is still apparently coping with his damaged psyche. Jimmy has a family of his own, including a 19 year old daughter who goes off and gets herself shot and ultimately beaten to death. Of course, Sean is on the case and, why not, Davie is a lead suspect. The film from here follows Sean and Jimmy as they try in their own ways to track down the killer, as well as Davie who is fighting his own demons and remains a suspect. There are a few plot twists along the way, as you’d expect, and an ending that is certainly rewarding.
The acting was without question quite brilliant, and indeed award-worthy. The best compliment one can give for the performances of Sean Penn and Tim Robbins specifically is that you forget completely their personal politics and therefore personal reasons to dislike them. Personal politics can tint a performance, and conscious of it or not, we’re all victims to the same judgments. Sean Penn was real in his portrayal of the ex-con/patriarch who loses his daughter. He buried himself in the role, and you can see in his eyes that his grief, anger, and angst are real. Kevin Bacon and Tom Robbins also handed in some of the best performances of their luminous careers, and that is saying something. Along with the cast, Brian Helgeland’s ear for dialogue truly deserves accolades for shifting a relatively formulaic mystery into a thoroughly nuanced drama.
The flaws in Mystic River lay squarely at the feet of Clint Eastwood. The three easiest fish to shoot in this barrel are the score, the camera work, and the editing. The score, which he composed, never seems to fit right. Mike Figgis comes to mind as one of the only great directors who can accurately score his own film. It is too often the case that this score feels like it was written for a different film. The shot selection came across as plain and obvious, without many touches of flair from a well-planned move, rack or angle. It felt at times almost as if Eastwood and his DP decided intentionally to use the camera sparingly to drive the tone. As if he saw the strength of his performances, and thought they would overshadow the rudimentary camera direction. He would be wrong in this case, as it was palpable how little the camera played into any given scene. Not that all films should need to always have interesting lenses, camera angles and moves — this is not Fight Club after all — but in this case the mystery inherent in the plot was subdued due to lackluster camera work. The same can be said about the editing, which was paced well, but perhaps too obvious for it’s own good. The red herring in the picture, which is the film’s primary plot device, is fundamentally obvious based on the cutting. That’s not to say you won’t be surprised by at least one of the twists, but the main plot device is flatly obvious. None of this even touches the rampant overuse of the slow cross-dissolve, the broadsword of the overly manipulative director.
Mystic River is not a classic, by any means, but upon viewing it was easy to see the reasons so many people, critics and associations really liked the film. They were all right. It was clearly (with the luxury of hindsight) one of the best films of last year, due unmistakably to the performances of Penn, Bacon, Robbins and Linney. Sure, there was plenty wrong with the film, which is why I believe it won’t stand up to the aforementioned Onslaught of the New. It certainly won’t become a classic like Lord of the Rings or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. While it may not have that longevity, it will always boast some of the best acting caught on film in the early 2000s, and even if it will be forgotten, at least it will forever have a page in any Oscar almanac.