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Powerful currents

A tale of lives overwhelmed by the past, 'Mystic River' is Clint Eastwood's masterwork.

October 08, 2003|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

"Mystic River" is a major American motion picture, an overpowering piece of work that involves some of the most basic human emotions: love, hate, fear, revenge, despair. Directed by Clint Eastwood with absolute confidence and remarkable control, it owes both its success and its significance to the way it seamlessly unites elements that are difficult to pull off on their own, much less together.

"Mystic River" is simultaneously an intricate and gripping crime story that involves child molestation and murder and a thoughtful and disturbing emotional drama about the nightmarish past sending destructive tentacles into the present. Instead of clashing, these elements reinforce each other every step of the way.

This is a major studio release that deals with the kind of dark and disconcerting material Hollywood usually tries to avoid. It's a star vehicle that provides memorable roles for half a dozen major players (Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon, Laurence Fishburne, Marcia Gay Harden, Laura Linney) yet also takes pains to cast even the smallest speaking parts with care.

It's got both impeccable source material (Dennis Lehane's persuasive bestseller) and a spare and impressive adaptation by Brian Helgeland that makes the difficult work of finding the film inside the book look simple and inevitable. And despite a respect for language that extends to the use of key dialogue from the book, "Mystic River" is faultlessly cinematic and a model of classic directorial style.

Best of all, "Mystic River" has Eastwood, an unflappable old master invigorated by the challenges inherent in the material. He's dealing with themes of masculinity and violence that have concerned him for decades, with emotions he understands from the inside, and venturing into deeper and murkier emotional currents than he's ever attempted before. What results is also Eastwood's best direction since "Unforgiven" and arguably the best, most mature work of his career.

Based on a novel

Everything starts with Lehane's strong and economically written book, a breakthrough stand-alone novel coming after a series of five private-eye books. "I was living with 'Mystic River' for 10 years before I wrote it," the author told Publishers Weekly, and that undoubtedly accounts for the subtlety and intricacy of its psychology, the way it gets to more emotion than is usual for a police procedural.

Set in a hard world where "the worst things did, in fact, sometimes happen," Lehane's is a story that understands life's fatal randomness, that explores how misplaced suspicions, unresolved hatreds, missed opportunities and shattering misunderstandings can color already complex situations in which no one is really innocent and everyone lives with his or her own complicity.

"Mystic River" is also a story, both on the page and on the screen, with an exact sense of place. Its aura of been-there atmosphere centers on the Boston neighborhood of East Buckingham where the film was shot, a working-class area, close by the Mystic River, also known as the Flats. "The Flats," Lehane wrote, "were nothing but a small town wrapped within a big city."

The drama begins with a critical extended flashback, set a quarter of a century in the past, a lazy late afternoon moment that finds 11-year-olds Dave, Sean and Jimmy playing street hockey on a deserted stretch of pavement.

But, as moodily captured by cinematographer Tom Stern, even the most innocent-seeming city moments have an intangible edge of menace about them. A car pulls up, a man presenting himself as a police officer gets out and rousts the boys for a minor infraction. Dave is ordered into the car and, suddenly, things get very dark very fast. "Ever think," Jimmy is to say decades later, "how one little choice can change a person's life?" Can change, it turns out, everyone's life.

In an instant, it is 25 years later and the boys, still in Boston but no longer close ("now it's just hello around the neighborhood"), are adults with families, responsibilities. Dave (Robbins), inevitably, is the one the past has affected most. Still living in the area though married to the timid Celeste (Harden) and with a son of his own, Dave Boyle has a sense of darkness and sadness around him that is so deep it seems to have swallowed the boy we saw without a trace. Of all the actors, Robbins has changed himself most for this role, taking on a strong Boston accent and changing his usual confident body language to play a haunted, interior man who's forever somewhere else in his mind.

Work, at least, has taken Sean Devine (Bacon) a little further away. He's become a "statie," a homicide detective working for the Massachusetts State Police, but he too has personal problems. Six months ago, his wife left; his only contact with her are random telephone interludes during which she calls, stays on the line but won't speak.

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