Mystic River is at all times a very American tragedy. Eastwood approaches it as such, both as director and composer (it’s Aaron Copland levels of romanticized, you eventually just have to go with it because Eastwood’s committed). But it’s also really just MacBeth in Bah-ston. A very, very cynical one. There’s not a single moment in Mystic River where a character doesn’t disappoint themselves, well, almost any single moment. At least, there’s never a single moment where a character doesn’t disappoint themselves or others. There; covered.
So it’s this “Bah-ston can be legitimate Americana too” crime tragedy mixed with an overwhelming sense of personal failure, starting from the first scene, which is a flashback to three tween boys playing street hockey in Boston of (late seventies) yore. Because they’ve been raised to unquestionably not challenge adult authority—or male bonding rituals—one of them ends up abducted and assaulted for four days before escaping. The other two friends go to see him when he gets home, but since he’s “damaged goods,” they fall off.
They grow up and become state police detective Kevin Bacon (state police means he’s not a Boston cop because they’re dumb), ex-con gone straight Sean Penn, and then there’s Tim Robbins, playing the abducted kid grown up. The only one of three who doesn’t have a real story is Bacon, who’s got some nonsense about his wife leaving him for a mystery reason and then calling him on the phone and not talking. I’ll spoil the stunt cast on the wife because it’s the film’s only completely obvious problem—Tori Davis isn’t good. Like. She can’t even convincingly hold a phone to her ear in close-up. It’s a thin subplot, so thin Bacon and partner Laurence Fishburne’s buddy cop antics are better and they’re incredibly muted for realism’s sake. Eastwood always positions Fishburne like he can walk off with the movie unless he’s boxed in (because Fishburne’s one of the natural protagonists; the film has many, just none of the three leads), only Bacon can’t hold up his end because his character’s thin. He doesn’t get to chomp away at his part like Penn or Robbins, who consume the film like it’s a whole chicken and they’re competing to see who can eat the most bones.
The three reunite over tragedy—someone murders Penn’s daughter, a just okay Emmy Rossum (Eastwood and Phyllis Huffman do a great job casting the film except for the kids—and the Wahlberg brother who can’t stop grinning like a jackass he’s in a real movie without his brother; the film at least needs to explain Robert Wahlberg’s goon is the comic psychopath one). The audience already knows Robbins saw her the night she died and then he came home really late covered in blood and told Marcia Gay Harden he beat up a mugger.
It hasn’t been an easy marriage for Harden and Robbins—though he’s a seemingly an outstanding dad to tween age son Cayden Boyd, something Harden doesn’t ever seem to acknowledge. If it turned out Boyd were a Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf kid, it would actually make more sense. With no changes to the film whatsoever. But he can’t hold a job and he’s just, you know, “damaged goods.” The first act of the film, covering the ground situation after the initial tragedy… it’s kind of an indictment of the culture it’s presenting. Of the Americana. Eastwood and production designer Henry Bumstead don’t Catholic it up–there’s not even a priest in it—there’s religiosity and the importance of it in the character’s lives, but the only imagery is in Penn’s tattoos. It’s got to be broader than a specific denomination. More universal. Also, from the one church scene, you can tell Eastwood could give a shit. He lets kids be cute or whatever, but otherwise, he’s out of church faster than Homer Simpson.
Because Mystic River is all about the pace. It’s got to keep moving to stay ahead of the story rolling downhill faster and faster. Because another thing Eastwood and screenwriter Brian Helgeland do to keep the melodrama down is artificially constrain the amount of information presented to the audience. Characters have obtuse conversations so as not to spoil a surprise later. At one or two points, people read lists like they can’t possibly have skipped ahead to see the relevant information. And somehow, thanks to Eastwood’s pacing and the actors, they can get away with it. Right until the third act, River stays ahead of that story boulder.
It comes to a weird resolve, where they do a sequence juxtapose and Eastwood can only figure out one of them—though the other has the wanting youth performances—and then it turns out he figured out the wrong one; it wasn’t even the important one. Not really.
Then comes the initially cruel but then just the driest, most hopeless cynicism in the world and all of a sudden it works again. It’s an amazing last few minutes save from the film, leveraging the excellent pace, plus some great acting and intriguing reveals. Part of the artificial information constraint is to allow for secret after secret. Everyone in Mystic River lies. Almost everyone in Mystic River is easily manipulated. Eastwood and Helgeland find the mundane tragedies of people who seemingly have spectacular ones. Without every losing their pace.
There are stumbles, but the pace is always great.
Best acting is Tim Robbins, then Sean Penn. It’s the script’s fault; Robbins just gets better material. They cast for obvious because most of the actors are playing caricatures; it might’ve been better if they’d mixed it up, who knows. Then it’s Marcia Gay Harden and Laurence Fishburne, with Kevin Bacon coming in sixth. He’s excellent—but being excellent isn’t enough and Fishburne’s actually got less than even Bacon and does more. Laura Linney’s also great but she’s not on the list because she never get to run a scene. Ditto uncredited guest stars Eli Wallach, who’s awesome, and Kevin Conway, who’s real good but not awesome. Wallach is one of the two times Mystic River lets itself have any fun (the John Carpenter’s Vampires nod doesn’t count because it’s not fun it’s heartbreaking); the other time is this hilarious joke Penn thug buddy #1 (Kevin Chapman) tells. Chapman and thug buddy #2 Adam Nelson are both fine. Grinner Wahlberg makes three. He’s not fine.
Mixing up the leads, not revealing too much to the audience, not wasting time intentionally misleading the audience, there are a lot of places where Mystic needs some tinkering but it’s still really damn good.
The acting—and Eastwood’s emphasis on the acting—is glorious. Mystic misses its mark, but it’s an often magnificent try.